How Trump convinced America that character doesn't matter
Trump's twisted behavior has made it harder for us to draw the right connections between presidential character, leadership, and policy
Many years from now, a young person will ask you, "What was it like when Donald Trump was president? Was it really as crazy as people say?" There will be a thousand ways you could answer that question, but try this one: "Well, at one point it was revealed that a month before he was elected, Trump paid $130,000 in hush money to a porn star named Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about an extramarital affair, and the media was so uninterested that they didn't even put the news on the front page, if they reported it at all. That's how crazy it was."
A visitor from an earlier age might assume that the news media, concerned about the propriety of sticking its nose into a gentleman's private affairs, decided to withhold what they knew from the public. That happened often in the past, from the reporters who said nothing about John F. Kennedy's womanizing to those who decided in 1996 that the story that Bob Dole had an extramarital affair in the 1960s simply had no bearing on what kind of president he'd be, so they declined to publish the news. "It just didn't pass the relevance test," said Len Downie, then editor of The Washington Post.
That's not what's happening in 2018, of course. The simple explanation for why the Stormy Daniels story — and I repeat, President Trump paid a porn star $130,000 in hush money to cover up an extramarital affair — isn't the subject of screaming headlines and round-the-clock cable news attention is that there are 10 other insane stories going on at the same time. This administration is such a chamber of horrors that neither the media nor the public can possibly follow every potential scandal, and since nobody's all that surprised that Trump was shtupping a porn star or that he paid her off, it isn't worth talking about.
But there's another explanation, one that gets deeper into the way Trump has twisted and degraded our entire national debate: President Trump is such a horrifying human being that he has ironically made it harder for us to draw the right connections between presidential character on the one hand, and leadership and policy on the other. Never has character mattered more, and yet at times we're almost blinded by the utter madness and chaos emitting from the White House on any given day.
Discussing character can be tricky, because we in the media often do such a poor job of it. It wasn't always the kind of focus it is now, particularly in campaigns, even if candidates have always sold themselves with stories of boundless integrity and common-man roots. When Theodore White published The Making of the Presidency 1960, a behind-the-scenes thriller in which JFK was the hero, it taught a generation of reporters that the real story took place where the voters couldn't see, in the strategies of the campaign and the fortitude of the candidate. When Richard Nixon's presidency imploded — and the White House tapes revealed him to be profane, paranoid, and many other things at odds with his public persona — it only reinforced for journalists that what mattered was the individual inside the suit, more than the party or policies he represented.
The ensuing obsession with presidential character often went too far, in no small part because reporters got obsessed with the wrong things and nearly forgot that the point of investigating character was to figure out how the candidates might perform in office. The connection between personal failings and a potential presidency was often raised in the vaguest of terms and then put aside without much examination. Catch a candidate in a lie, and it was enough to say, "If he lied to the public about this, what will he lie about if he's president?", without actually answering the question.
The question of honesty shows how the press can get it wrong even if they're in the right neighborhood. Campaign lying has indeed been a preview of presidential lying — but it's not always as simple as distinguishing between the honest candidate and the dishonest one. For example, when Bill Clinton was a candidate, he covered up extramarital affairs. And when he was president, guess what, he had an extramarital affair and then lied about it. But when it came to his job, he was no less honest than your average president, which may have been one of the reasons he survived impeachment.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, didn't lie about who he was sleeping with when he ran for president, but he told a great number of lies about the policies he was proposing. Lo and behold, when he became president he had no sex scandals, but continued to lie about policy, most notably when it came to the effort to sell the Iraq War, but on other matters as well.
And what about President Trump? As a candidate he lied about, well, everything. And as president he has done the same.
But the media has from the beginning been enthralled with the Trump show, and as a result, at times the coverage seems disconnected from past or future. You could drop into any moment in the first year of his presidency and learn about the crazy thing he tweeted that day, but it would probably seem to have no bearing on what came before or after. Today we're talking about what he did or didn't say about African countries to a group of senators, next week it will be something else, and the week after that it will be yet another thing.
In the past, reporters have tended to reduce presidential character to a key personality flaw or two, then use that as a frame to interpret much of the events that unfold. The problem with Trump is that he embodies almost every flaw you could imagine. The trail of sleaze both personal and professional that he left through his adult life is just mind-boggling in its magnitude. Adultery, alleged sexual assault, exploitation of workers, ordinary citizens scammed out of their money, investors shafted, contractors unpaid, you name it, he's done it. I'm sure there are some offenses against decency, morality, and law that Trump's hasn't committed, but you have to think hard to come up with them.
Even if giving a six-figure payout to a porn star as hush money would have destroyed any other president, we might decide that it doesn't tell us anything about Donald Trump that we didn't already know, so it's not worth getting worked up over. In other words, he can get away with it because he's already understood to be such an awful person. How many presidents can you say that about?