Is character destiny?

James Piereson, a historian and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, takes on the claim that President Trump will fail because “character is destiny” and Trump’s character is abysmal. Piereson responds:

The problem with this proposition, at least as it applies to politics, is that Machiavelli destroyed it five hundred years ago in The Prince, and thereby laid the foundations for modern politics. This is not to say that Trump’s character and norm-breaking style are unimportant or irrelevant to his performance in office, but that the general proposition (“Character is destiny”) is generally false as applied to political life. Trump may fail, but most likely for reasons unrelated to his character.

It isn’t just Machiavelli who destroyed the “character is destiny” proposition. History has also destroyed it. At least that’s what I take from my reading of history.

I find no correlation between the character of rulers and how they fare politically and militarily. Leaders with poor character often find themselves miserable in their late years, but they are no more likely than leaders with decent characters to have failed in their political and military endeavors.

I’m talking mainly about kings and emperors. What about presidents in a democracy?

Here again, I find no correlation between character and political destiny. For my money, Andrew Jackson’s character was among the poorest of all U.S. presidents. Although historians have tended to overrate Jackson (at least until recently, when political incorrectness brought him down a peg or two), it’s difficult to maintain that he was an unsuccessful president.

Which modern presidents have had the best character? Arguably, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. What do they have in common? They were not reelected. Also, their presidencies aren’t widely held in high regard.

Bill Clinton’s character is poor. He was reelected pretty handily and, if one is able to factor out ideological considerations, was a reasonably successful president.

Some presidencies tend to support the view that character matters greatly. I put Lyndon Johnson (bad character, bad presidency), Richard Nixon (bad character, unsuccessful presidency), and Ronald Reagan (good character, great presidency) in that category. But at least as many modern presidencies should be considered counter-examples.

Now that impeachment has become a weapon, bad character is a potential source of presidential downfall independent of a presidential performance. Nixon and Clinton were both performing fairly well when they faced impeachment. If Nixon and Clinton had been of better character, they would not have been impeached.

I’m not sure that’s true of Trump. I think he was destined to impeached (if the Democrats took control of the House) from the moment he took office for reasons having nothing to do with his character.

In any case, impeachment doesn’t necessarily mean a failed presidency. It did in Nixon’s case, but not in Clinton’s.

As for Trump, I agree with Piereson:

If Trump goes down in failure, it will more likely be due to a slowdown in the economy or to some misstep by the Federal Reserve Board, or to some international incident that he cannot handle, or in any case to events not related to his character.

Not because Trump’s character isn’t really bad (or all that bad), as Piereson seems to suggest, but because character isn’t political destiny.


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