People do their laundry at the Coral Way Lavanderia coin laundry as a television broadcast of U.S. President Donald Trump is seen as he delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill on January 30, 2018 in Miami, Florida. President Trump spoke about immigration, the economy and other issues. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Americans used to look at their president as a role model, not anymore.
By Kenneth T. Walsh / 02.02.2018
Character doesn’t count the way it used to. In the past, most Americans honored their presidents and used them as role models who embodied time-tested virtues. No more.
President Donald Trump has gone a long way toward accelerating this unfortunate trend. He gave a reasonably agreeable State of the Union address this week, and even showed some compassion and empathy. But the bar was very low for him because, since he alienates so many people, any show of comity was going to be taken as a positive step.
Yet in many ways, Trump remains the un-president – seemingly lacking in traits that the nation used to prize such as honesty, empathy, forgiveness, a spirit of conciliation, humility, sharing the values of everyday people, self deprecation and a sense of humor. Instead he emphasizes bluster and narcissism. His presidency seems to be a reality show based on pride, preening and his immense ego, designed to call attention to the man in charge and crush his adversaries.
Before Trump, three other modern presidents badly damaged public perceptions of their office and undermined public faith in their ability to live up to high standards – all in different ways. Lyndon Johnson overreached and lied about how badly the Vietnamese War was going. Richard Nixon covered up crimes and demeaned his office, and he resigned in disgrace. Bill Clinton lied under oath about his improper relationship with a former White House intern. He was impeached by the House of Representatives and acquitted by the Senate but his deception and perjury hurt his credibility and damaged the institution of the presidency.
It was under Clinton that Americans seemed to make the distinction between a president’s personal life and his public performance. Voters felt that while Clinton’s private character might be reprehensible, his public policies were effective, and most voters approved of his job performance. Americans learned they could live with this bifurcation, even though it was a departure from the idea of president as role model that so many Americans had cherished.
Trump is making matters worse. Polls show that millions of Americans don’t look up to him and don’t want to emulate him in terms of character and values. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that 67 percent of voters say Trump is not a good role model for children. Sixty-three percent say Trump fails to provide the nation with “moral leadership” and 33 percent say he does. Quinnipiac finds that Trump’s grades on most character traits are negative, at least among non-Republicans. Sixty-one percent of voters say he doesn’t share their values; 60 percent say he is not honest; 57 percent say he doesn’t care about “average Americans.” Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, told reporters, “Only 27 percent of American voters say they are proud to have Donald Trump as president, while 53 percent say they are embarrassed – a 2-1 negative.” And Quinnipiac found that, overall, 58 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s job performance and 36 percent approve.
Trump regularly spreads falsehoods, mocks his allies and adversaries, and attacks major institutions such as the FBI and the news media. There also have been many allegations that he has had extramarital affairs and has sexually harassed or mistreated women. Trump has denied wrongdoing, and he is getting a pass from many for his indiscretions. The latest example is a story reported by the Wall Street Journal and other news organizations that starting in 2006 he had an affair with porn-movie star Stormy Daniels even though he was married at the time to his current (and third) wife Melania. This also would have been shortly after his son Barron was born. The Journal reported that a lawyer for Trump arranged a $130,000 payment to Daniels last year, just prior to the presidential election, supposedly to keep her quiet about the affair. Trump denies the allegations.
We have seen this pattern of, at minimum, indiscretion with Trump before, such as with his admission on tape that as a celebrity he could get away with groping women and they wouldn’t complain. But Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said of the Stormy Daniels allegations, “We kind of gave him, all right, you get a mulligan…You get a do-over.” Evangelist Franklin Graham said, “He is not President Perfect” and declared that Trump has a genuine “concern for Christian values” which entitles him to the support of Christian conservatives.
Trump’s character flaws haven’t caused a free fall. His personal shortcomings haven’t made much difference with his base, and he retains the support of about one-third of the electorate. Character just doesn’t count that much any more.