Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Trump Tower Versus The City Upon a Hill

UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, once said: "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are."  (see ESPN - Wooden Quotes). 

In contrast, Trump is more concerned with reputation than character.  Yet, he's running a leadership play that seems to be working - he's identified and communicated a small number of priorities (protect jobs, protect boarders, get better international deals for the US), he's got everyone's attention (twitter), and he seems to be outmaneuvering and keeping potential opponents off guard (i.e., Romney and Gore...).  The Trump Tower in New York embodies reputation over character, and some of the most powerful and important people in the world are traveling to the Tower for an audience with the President-elect. 


In modern society, do the ends justify the means, making character less important?  Has democracy become so messy and inefficient that we should consider the benefits of a strong leader, just to fix things and get results?  


What the Founders of the Constitution Thought About the Importance of Presidential Character


In fact, the Founders looked at this issue and concluded that if our leaders, especially the President, lack character, our system of government can implode. 


The Founders reviewed the Constitution in light of history, philosophy, religion, and - especially for purposes of this discussion - human nature.  Their insights, although over 200 years old, are relevant today because core human nature doesn't change.  


In the Federalist Papers - a series of essays written by Hamilton, Madison and Jay in support of ratification of the Constitution - Madison observed that freedom naturally leads to inequality because people have different levels of talent, different opinions, and a logical desire to acquire wealth and promote their own interests.  As a result, "factions" are inevitably formed in a free society to promote group interests and ideologies.  Once a faction becomes a majority, there is the threat that it will - out of rational individual and collective self interest - crush minorities and destroy freedom.  (See The Federalist Papers#10)


The Founders understood that - given human nature - private interests and public good are naturally going to be in conflict.  To address this, they concluded that self-government (versus monarchy) would only work with certain preconditions, especially (i) separation of powers and (ii) a "virtuous" citizenry and virtuous leaders (meaning that they would put public interests before private interests).  The threat of factions could be muted by Constitutional checks and balances, but that would not be enough to overcome the natural tendency to put personal interest and greed above the public good.  The people might normally act in their own self-interest, but an educated populace could at times consider the public interest, and especially, they could elect good leaders, who in turn would be more likely to be virtuous.  


As the most senior leader and the embodiment of the people, the standard for character and virtue was highest for the President.  In Federalist 68, Hamilton states as follows:



"Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."  (See The Federalist Papers#68)

In our system government, the President ultimately has to be selfless, and able to step back and do what's best for the entire country.  

The Words of Presidents-Elect JFK and Trump

Nearly 400 years ago, future governor and Puritan John Winthrop wrote a poem about his vision of making Massachusetts Bay an inspiration for the entire world - a "city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."  (Winthrop's poem: "A Model of Christian Charity").  

In 1961, Winthrop's imagery was borrowed by President-Elect John F. Kennedy, shortly before his inauguration, when he spoke at the State House on Beacon Street in Boston about the characteristics that he hoped to bring to his new administration and to the Presidency.  (Text of JFK's City Upon A Hill Speech / 8 Minute Audio of JFK's speech). 


JFK's speech is an inspiring articulation of the ideal of Presidential character.  When compared to Trump's words, it is also a disturbing reminder of Trump's lack of character and the threat that he poses to democracy.   If you have 8 minutes, I recommend listening to JFK's speech.  He explained to the audience of Massachusetts legislators that for the two months since he won his election he had been working to carefully construct his new administration, guided by John Winthrop's words - "that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."  


JFK said that the people he chose for his administration must be "aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities," and must have "competence and loyalty", but even those virtues would not be enough, because "For of those to whom much is given, much is required." And so, he said, history would judge him and his administration based on the answers to four questions:


"First, were we truly men of courage—with the courage to stand up to one's enemies—and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one's associates—the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed?"


Contrast Trump - his words (tweets) are often motivated by response to criticism. 


"Secondly, were we truly men of judgment—with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past—of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others—with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it?"


Trump - rarely admits a mistake, which limits his capacity to learn.  


"Third, were we truly men of integrity—men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them—men who believed in us—men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust?"


Trump - so far he has refused to divest his holdings and disclose his tax forms, as other Presidents have done.


"Finally, were we truly men of dedication—with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest."

Trump - promotes his own point of view - rather than stepping back and truly focusing on the public good and national interest.  



The insights of Winthrop, the Founders, and JFK are as relevant today as in their own days.  As brilliant as the Constitution is, it only works if our leaders have the character to put public interest above personal gain.  

In late November, when fascists openly yelled "Hail Trump" with NAZI solutes to celebrate Trump's election victory, Trump waited two days, and then had a spokesperson issue a general statement that he "denounces racism".  (see Vanity Fair).  He never came forward himself to condemn the racists who were supporting him.  Doing the right thing - or failing to do so - take on an outsized importance for the President.  

It is up to each of us to conduct ourselves with character and virtue, to point out failures of the President to act with character and virtue, and to communicate and hold accountable our leadership in all branches of government to ensure the Constitutional checks and balances are upheld. 


Character is not partisan.  






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