Feb. 7, 2020 at 12:47 p.m. CST
“Character is the only secure foundation of the state.”
— President Calvin Coolidge, addressing the National Republican Club in New York, 1924.
“It was all bullshit.”
— President Trump, addressing Republicans in the White House and a national television audience on Thursday after his acquittal.
From the birth of the Republic — indeed, from the birth of Athenian democracy — it has been an article of faith that self-governance cannot survive without leaders of character.
“Not much probity is needed for maintaining or sustaining a monarchical government or a despotic government,” wrote the Baron de Montesquieu, whose philosophy inspired the Framers. “But in a popular state, one more recourse is necessary, which is virtue.”
Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 68, confidently predicted that the Constitution would prevent those with “talents for low intrigue” from reaching the highest office: “There will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters preeminent for ability and virtue.”
Washington, Emerson, Lincoln, even Richard Nixon spoke of the American experiment’s reliance on leaders of character. But this week, our leaders took a decided turn against that belief.
Though a majority of senators agreed that President Trump had done wrong, the Senate cleared him of wrongdoing. They acquitted him even though he expressed no contrition and even though his agent, Rudy Giuliani, had just stated that he, with Trump’s permission, would go on committing the same behavior that got Trump impeached.
The president had broken the law, cheated in his reelection, abused a vulnerable ally by withholding military aid, emboldened a foe and concealed the facts — and there would be no consequences. His fellow Republicans rejected even the symbolic sanction of censure.
It didn’t take long to see the consequences of acquittal: Trump’s blasphemy at the National Prayer Breakfast, his obscene rant in the White House, his move to evict from the White House a decorated military officer who testified during impeachment, his attorney general’s edict that he alone would decide which presidential candidates to investigate and his Treasury Department’s release of sensitive records about the family of a Trump political opponent even as it refuses to release similar records about Trump.
This is a man of the lowest character — and his partisans cheer. The Post identified more than 30 distortions in his State of the Union address Tuesday, where he announced he would award the nation’s highest civilian honor to a man who joined Trump in spreading the “birther” libel and who popularized the tune “Barack the Magic Negro” for his millions of listeners.
And the Republicans on the House floor chanted: “Four more years!”
After chronicling the impeachment proceedings over several months, I’m convinced the most enduring consequence of the depressing spectacle will be America’s loss of decency. Long after the details of the Ukraine scandal have faded, after Trump leaves the scene in one year or five, Americans will wrestle with the damage done by blessing the behavior of this vulgar man.
The menace of Trump has never been any one policy — his policies, after all, are constantly changing — but his shredding of dignity in public life and of our shared sense of right and wrong. “A man without character or ethical compass will never find his way,” Adam Schiff warned the Senate. “There is nothing more corrosive to a democracy than the idea that there is no truth. … Truth matters, right matters, but so does decency. Decency matters.”
Trump’s partisans in the Congress, because they fear him, or because they like his economic policies or his judicial nominations, stuck with him through “Access Hollywood” and Stormy Daniels; putting child immigrants in cages and assassinating the character of honorable public servants; his racist attack on a federal judge and the succor he gave neo-Nazis in Charlottesville; his lies by the thousand, his public vulgarity and misspelled insults; his relentless assaults on the free press, law enforcement and Muslims; and, now, cheating in the election.
Trump’s enablers will ask: What about Bill Clinton? He, too, had glaring character defects. The difference is Clinton, though acquitted, was forced to apologize for his conduct and was roundly denounced by fellow Democrats. In my articles from the time, I described him as a “lout and a liar” with a “strained relationship with the truth,” a weak “moral code,” “hypocrisy,” and an “unconvincing” claim that he didn’t commit perjury.
Now, the precious few Republicans willing to say Trump’s behavior was anything less than perfect — Lamar Alexander, Joni Ernst, Susan Collins, Rob Portman — somehow deceive themselves into thinking he will reform his ways. As if.
“I believe that in national life as the ages go by we shall find that the permanent national types will more and more tend to become those in which, though intellect stands high, character stands higher,” Theodore Roosevelt predicted more than a century ago. He, like Hamilton, imagined “disinterested and unselfish” leaders endowed with “a lofty scorn of doing wrong to others.”
Roosevelt, and Hamilton, didn’t imagine Trump.
Schiff, in his closing argument to the Senate this week, said this: “Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less, and decency matters not at all.” But, Schiff pleaded: “Truth matters to you. Right matters to you. You are decent. He is not who you are.”
With Republicans’ latest embrace of this man of the lowest character, they are becoming who he is.
And as our children see our feckless leaders tolerate a president without a fiber of virtue, I fear that we will all become who he is.