Once upon a time, we called it “the character issue.” It was a major part of the conservative attack on Bill Clinton in the 1990s: He was a draft-dodging adulterer and therefore unworthy of the office of the presidency.
Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, speculates about the cause of conservatives’ tolerance for Trump.
[H]is vices have been exhaustively condemned but never examined in comparative perspective. Do obscenities fall from his lips more readily than they did from Lyndon Johnson’s or Richard Nixon’s? Are the circumstances of his three marriages more shameful than the circumstances of John F. Kennedy’s pathologically unfaithful one—or for that matter, Bill Clinton’s humiliatingly unfaithful one? Have any of his egotistical excesses rivaled Andrew Jackson’s killing a man in a duel over a horse racing bet and an insult to Jackson’s wife? The point is not to extenuate Trump’s faults but to understand how millions of voters see him.
What these voters are thinking, on Kesler’s plausible explanation, is that it would be nothing new to elect a president with serious character flaws. Trump backer Robert Jeffress, a prominent pastor in Dallas, makes a version of this argument. Conservative Christians backed Ronald Reagan even though he had been married twice. Many of them supported the thrice-married Newt Gingrich even knowing he had committed adultery. To refuse to support Trump on character grounds would require “selective amnesia,” Jeffress concludes.
This line of thinking itself represents a new lowering of public standards.
One difference between Trump and previous presidents -- a difference that Kesler notes -- is that the public had no way of knowing about most of their vices before voting for them. (Nixon’s swearing on the Watergate tapes, while not the focus of public concern, was scandalous.) Many voters will be choosing Trump while knowing a lot about his.
And truly comparing Trump to those flawed presidents would not come out well for him. They had more virtues against which to judge those vices: Many of them had served in the military in wartime, and they had taken the time to learn the basics about government.
Then there are the dimensions of those vices. People often criticize Trump for “vulgarity,” but that makes it sound as if he merely uses the wrong fork or decorates gaudily. To insinuate that a rival candidate’s father was involved in assassinating a president, or to go after the candidate's wife’s looks, or to attack a reporter for being disabled—and then lie about all of these offenses: These are novelties in a presidential race. So is a candidate’s having established a business that is credibly alleged to have been an essentially fraudulent enterprise preying on the vulnerable.
A voter should care about a candidate’s character for two reasons. The first relates to job performance. Would the candidate seek the common good and exercise mature judgment in office? No president hits those marks every time, but some people inspire more confidence than others.
The second concerns our culture. Trump’s success in the presidential race so far reflects a cultural rot: It would once have been impossible for someone like him to win the nomination. But it also deepens that rot. If we elevate a man we know to be cruel, impulsive, insecure, vain and dishonest to the most powerful position in our country, that choice helps to define our own character and shape our expectations for one another. It also means that our political debate will be dumber, nastier and more content-free.
A candidate’s character isn’t everything. It has to be weighed along with his philosophy, his public-policy positions, his knowledge and intelligence. And it has to be weighed against the character of his opponent.
Weighing all of these considerations in the balance, most conservatives will conclude that Trump, for all his flaws, is better than Hillary Clinton. Any such judgment should be made with both eyes open. Conservatives who instead dismiss what we know about Trump because nobody’s perfect are effectively saying that character does not matter at all to them.