Trump, Emerson and Questions of Character
“Hard to find an ideal in history. By courtesy we call saints and heroes such, but they are very defective characters; I cannot easily find a man I would be.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his notes on Character
Rarely has the character of a mere mortal enjoyed so much attention as that of President Trump. Although his sins and flaws qualify him for Emerson’s “defective” label, he is also viewed widely as a hero, if not a saint. Perhaps that is because a hero is true first to himself and his vision, and oftentimes must overcome his own innate weaknesses to accomplish that which fate has decreed for him.
Liberal commentators, of course, dismiss Trump on all levels, character included. But it is more instructive to consider how conservatives — who have a natural affinity for Trump’s policies — approach the question of his “defective character.” A literary feud on this topic between conservative writers Jonah Goldberg and Roger Kimball has now entered its fourth round, and though Goldberg has been knocked to the canvas twice, I fully expect him to jump up like another famous New Yorker — Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” — and try yet again to put a knife to Trump's character and twist it. Because Jonah Goldberg, like many elite Republicans, really doesn't like Donald Trump.
Here's the background for those of you who are new to the world of neocon fatwas and Never Trumper vendettas. Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review, which famously devoted a cover story in early 2016 to being “Against Trump.” More recently, on Dec. 27 of last year, Goldberg published an essay called “Character Is Destiny,” in which he opined that “Trump’s character will be his downfall.”
Goldberg was amply rebutted by Kimball, editor and publisher of the New Criterion, in an essay at AmericanGreatness.com, where he essentially turned the character issue back on Goldberg and other Never Trumpers. Why, he asked, do you allow your distaste for the man’s character to undermine your own conservative principles — principles that only Trump has been successful at implementing in national policy?
Goldberg responded by insisting that character is more important than accomplishments, which led to the final salvo as Kimball described (in “The Character That Matters”) the destructive outcome of a politics based solely on character and not results. That has been the model for Republican politicians for the past 30 years, and it led to the collapse of the national character we have all witnessed at the same time we watched politicians (and journalists) patting each other on the back for their collegiality and ability to work together.
I commend Kimball for deflecting Goldberg’s false arguments. I could certainly do no better, but what I would like to do here is consider Jonah Goldberg in relation to his true foil, Donald J. Trump, partly seen through the prism of Emerson’s transcendental philosophy.
Like Trump, Goldberg is a consummate New Yorker. But whereas Trump's New York is a place of boundless possibility and the capital of the American imagination, Goldberg's is bounded by Columbia University on the north, Times Square on the south, Central Park on the east and the edge of the world on the west. By the edge of the world, I mean the Hudson River, that mythical beginning of the frontier (or American wasteland) that is celebrated most famously in a New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg. Although both Trump and Goldberg currently have abodes located in the Deep Swamp of Washington, D.C., poetic license allows me to picture both of them in their natural habitat of Manhattan, where I think we will get a much clearer picture of them and better understand why they are sworn enemies.
In Goldberg's world, New York is not the capital, but rather the sole domain of imagination, creativity and invention, and the rest of the country — nay, the world — ought to pay homage to the heightened aesthetic on full display in a cozy West Side walk-up where Jonah envisions himself in a well-worn bathrobe and comfy slippers, sipping on a latte, pinky finger held thus, contemplating who knows what lofty ideals while scratching his navel and pondering with a small part of his very large brain the meaning of "13 down" in the New York Times Sunday crossword.
Meanwhile, across town in Trump Tower, another man in a bathrobe is thinking about how damn lucky he is to live in a country of endless ingenuity, where hard work is a currency as good as gold, and where anyone — yes, anyone — can grow up to become president of the United States just as we were promised in the schoolbooks and speeches. A man could build anything with his own two hands and a blueprint, even a road that led to the White House through the cornfields of Iowa and the stubby mountains of New Hampshire. Call it the American Dream.
If I may be allowed a moment of personal indulgence, this battle between Goldberg and Kimball reminds me of the resistance I encountered when I left New York as a young man to move to Montana and find (as Goldberg would have it) my destiny. My friends from the greater metropolitan area were dumbfounded — and not a little hurt. "Whaduhya mean yer movin' to Montana? The good people are fightin' to get inta New York, and yer packin' yer bags?!?" I can't remember if they called me a loser to my face, but that was the plain meaning. Montana was just "out there" in the Dead Zone, beyond understanding or possibility.
But it wasn't. It was simply beyond their understanding, just as Donald Trump is beyond the understanding of all the Never Trumpers.
Goldberg declares that "character is destiny," and therefore has written off the Trump presidency on account of the president's assumed bad character because of his infidelities and coarseness. But I think Goldberg has it wrong for the simple reason that we already know Donald Trump's destiny — to be not just a successful real-estate developer, but then a massive celebrity in a culture that values celebrity more highly even than "good" character, and finally to rise to the height of the aforementioned American Dream that anyone who works hard enough can be president.
Consider this definition of character by Emerson, the consummate American philosopher, as the wellspring of Trump’s success: “Character is the habit of action from the permanent vision of truth. It carries a superiority to all the accidents of life.”
We know that presidents of very bad character, such as the serial adulterer John F. Kennedy, have been very successful in the White House, and that men of very good character, such as the saintlike Jimmy Carter, have been hapless presidents. You could make the case, I suppose, that Kennedy’s dark character led in a mechanistic universe to his death by assassination, and that Carter’s personal traits led to his being rewarded with long life, but even if true, those have nothing to do with the arc of their presidencies, both of which were short but of significantly different moment depending on their particular “habit of action.”
Likewise, Trump’s presidency may end after one term, or even before that, for a variety of reasons, but it would be premature to write it off as a failure of character. Donald Trump has been underestimated before, not least by Hillary Clinton and by his predecessor, Barack Obama, who quipped in response to a barb from Trump: "At least I'll go down [in history] as a president." Oops. That misfire in prophecy came just two weeks before Trump’s election demonstrated that his character as honed by his “vision of truth” is formidable, if not comfortable.
Goldberg may be right that “character is destiny,” but I for one am betting that Trump’s character — expressed in his “habit of action” — will reshape America’s destiny for the better. Perhaps we can turn to Emerson for guidance once again as we ponder the man whose rise to power was based on a slogan of national renewal.
“Great men serve us as insurrections do in bad governments. The world would run into endless routine, and forms incrust forms, till the life was gone. But the perpetual supply of new genius shocks us with thrills of life, and recalls us to principles.”
Or as Donald Trump has said, more simply: “Make America Great Again.”