It is probably lost to mind who first said that “in the American presidency, character is destiny.” But whoever coined the adage must have been thinking of Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, in whom the salience of personal qualities was so great as to be historically determinative – Washington’s war-tried experience and authority, Lincoln’s spirituality, FDR’s recovery from a paralyzing disease – in the latter case so huge as to vanquish his early reputation as a lightweight.
In what ways has Trump’s four years departed from the rule of character? The search is not hard. Here is a presidency so lived in the realm of fantasy, fiction and fibs that those who bothered to keep count of the falsehoods tallied them it in the thousands.
It began on his inauguration day with a distorted (and petty) claim – proclaiming a persisting envy – that he had drawn a bigger crowd than Barack Obama: whom he had long sought to show ineligible by reason of foreign birth. It continued with infantile name-calling which ripened into inability to recruit or build a stable administration – a spectacle which suggested his inability to distinguish between his office and the trivial TV series in which his role was to fire “apprentices.”
Trump made it his function to tear down every security agency, notably the CIA and the FBI. Indeed, canceling valuable treaty commitments and attacking Obama’s health care legislation, he seemed to delight in confounding every expectation of regularity in government for the mere hell of it.
But so much for a sampling – which isn’t difficult. What it boiled down to was, to use a term now out of fashion, a severe case of bad manners – not in any precious sense, but in the more vital and important sense formulated long ago by Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman.
What Burke said in essence was that in civil society manners are more important than laws because they shape both private deportment and politics. But Burke, a man of surpassing eloquence, can speak for himself:
“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law teaches us but here and there and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give the whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality they aid morals, they supply them or they totally destroy them.”
The point was amplified centuries earlier by Burke’s countryman, William of Wykeham, who simply said: “Manners maketh the Man.”
Just when or how Donald Trump broke free of these invaluable restraints who can say? But the cost has been high – for him and for us.