It’s an interesting exercise to watch two of the most thoroughly disliked people in the USA getting ready to duke it out as their respective party’s chosen nominee for the presidency. Is it something wrong with the system that people who poll as being so thoroughly despised by millions upon millions of Americans can also be their democratically chosen candidates, or is it something wrong with the electorate? Then again maybe it’s the current zeitgeist that permits an utterly despicable bigot and quite probably sociopathic chronic liar rise to the top of one party, while a cold, rather unpleasant professional politician with a long track record of dubious associations and financial dealings nabs the nomination of the other. Either way, the current clusterfuck that passes for the 2016 US election cycle has clearly brought out the very worst in American politicians and in the people themselves.
There is no question that the current contest is ugly, but that is not to say that there is equal blame to be apportioned or that either side is as culpable as the other. Donald Trump, the Republican presumptive nominee is in a class by himself when it comes to sheer, crude, repulsive, human behaviour; there has rarely been a more disgusting person at this level of the American political system.
This public display of human ugliness of spirit raises a number of questions. It makes us think about human qualities, for example, and what characteristics make a person admirable or respectable in a society. Since, presumably, a head of both government and state ought to be admired and respected by the people he represents, he or she must have some personal traits that arouse those sentiments in the voters. As we try to understand the Trump phenomenon, we can’t help but be confused; what on earth does Trump’s crazed mob of followers see in the man that is worthy of any admiration or respect? I’ve asked several of them and I invariably get variations on a theme. Their main points are always these:
- Trump is a great businessman.
- Trump tells it like it is.
And that’s pretty much it.
Let’s try to deconstruct that, shall we? The first, most obvious point to consider is whether or not there is any truth to the contention that Trump is a great, or even good businessman. And the answer is, well….not really. The man managed to bankrupt casinos. Yes, casinos. If there ever was a business that was tantamount to a licence to print money, that would be casinos. Trump has filed for bankruptcy often enough to suggest that he ought not be permitted to manage a lemonade stand without adult supervision. It has been pointed out that he would be much wealthier than even he says he is had he just put the money he inherited in a bank and lived off a portion of the interest. Of course much of this is speculation since he, uniquely among presidential candidates, refuses to release his tax returns. The smart money says that they would show that his claims of enormous wealth would probably be exposed as more grandiose talk than anything else. And Hillary Clinton suggests that they would show that he pays little or no personal income tax. Either way, it’s obvious that Trump is betting that the fallout from releasing the returns would be worse than what he’s getting from refusing. Must be pretty damn bad.
A secondary point would be that it’s all irrelevant anyway. The skills learned in business and the mindset of a businessman are not the skills required of a statesman and head of state. As the president of a corporation, he can issue orders, rely on his judgment to make rules, form plans, apportion resources. Not so with a political figure who must work hand in hand with opponents, must forge alliances, and who is always answerable to the people who elected him. Moreover, the very aims of business are different from public service. A business is formed to make a profit for the owners. A nation requires a leader who can protect and enhance the lives of the people. Trump wouldn’t have the first idea of how to do that and wouldn’t have the inclination to do so if he figured it out.
Trump tells it like it is. The Republican candidate is a human id personified. Indeed, he does tell it like it is…if by that we mean like it is in his head. But it seems that his supporters mean by that phrase something else entirely. They seem to think that Trump expresses truths that everyone else is to afraid to speak; that “political correctness” prevents others from saying what everyone is thinking, but that Trump has the courage to rise above that.
Much has been written about Trump’s habitual lying; never has a politician failed so dismally to survive fact checks. Simply put, Donald Trump lies and lies all the time. He is known for telling it like it certainly isn’t. So what they must mean by “telling it like it is” is that he says things out loud that even they, his redneck, racist acolytes are afraid to voice openly. He can be an overt racist and all the closet racists jump up and down with glee; he has given them permission to be hateful and vicious. And then the ones who have always been vocal racists also fall in line because they have been given legitimacy. Tell it like it is? Hardly; tell it like they wish it was, certainly.
So what is it that they find admirable or respectable in Donald Trump? It seems to boil down to his ability to pretend to be competent at something, and his predilection for voicing racist, misogynist, and generally ignorant thoughts.
All of this led me to give some consideration to the question of what ought we consider qualities worthy of our admiration. Many people supported JFK because he was so telegenic; it’s part of modern history that JFK won the debates with Nixon among those who watched it on TV but lost to those who heard it on the radio.
And yet most of us would conclude that good looks are not really a quality for which a person is entitled to admiration. That’s so shallow, we would say; physical attractiveness is merely a matter of having the right genes as a result of a lucky sperm contest; nothing was earned. What we ought to admire about someone like JFK is his intellect, his raw IQ. Except that his intelligence is vulnerable to precisely the same criticisms his looks are. Lucky sperm again; he inherited those smarts and did nothing to earn them.
So what’s left? The most important qualities of all: being a decent human being. Choosing to care about those who have less than you do. Being inclined to elevate others rather than tearing them down; genuinely working for the overall happiness in the world and at the end of one’s life, leaving the world better for having been there.
Those qualities are what makes a person worthwhile; not wealth, not looks, talent, or even brains. It’s the content of one’s character that matters; I’ll even use the word soul here. That is what we should be looking for in a national leader. As head of state, we need a person who has the qualities of intelligence, of knowledge of the responsibilities and requirements of the office; an understanding of history, geopolitics, and domestic policy; he or she needs to understand economics and diplomacy and be capable of eliciting respect from foreign leaders; all of that should be a given, they are minimum requirements. On top of all of that we need someone who carries the virtues of integrity, kindness, compassion, and an instinct for simple human decency.
Have we seen anyone like that recently?