TEMPERAMENT IS A HUMAN ATTRIBUTE that we each possess, and that we continuously assess in one-another. It informs our character, which in turn informs other higher human attributes such as integrity, compassion, and self-awareness. Appropriate temperament is vital to success in almost any human endeavor, and is so important that we instinctively regard it as indispensable in assessing someone’s suitability for almost anything: a relationship, a job, a responsibility—an elective office. This is perfectly ordinary, and people will naturally gravitate toward an enterprise that suits them temperamentally. As a society, however, “appropriate” temperament is not intrinsic, and it is not accidental; it is a choice about what we want to see in ourselves, in our communities, and in our leadership.
Leadership, in particular, demands temperamental assessment. We speak of “judicial” temperament, for example, by which we generally mean thoughtfulness, intelligence, solemnity, and reserve—ideally with a heaping helping of compassion. Not so the temperament of a CEO, who is expected to be confident, and brash, and entrepreneurial, and not infrequently an asshole.
Presidential temperament is another matter altogether. Presidents are expected to eschew emotion and exude calmness and grace. They speak for everyone, in theory, and are expected to moderate their language accordingly. They are expected to be strong leaders, and under no circumstances are they to be confused with a strongman. They cannot know everything there is to know about the office, and so we expect them to surround themselves with highly-capable professionals and civil servants to assist them with the machinery of governance. We expect them to make difficult decisions—but we first expect them to actually understand that the decisions are in fact difficult, and more importantly, why. Finally, Presidential temperament invites a vigilant eye to the broad sweep of history, and the judgment born of appropriate caution that such a view should naturally impose.
No President is perfect, but most modern Presidents have occupied the office with a certain gravity and savior faire. As a matter of temperament, Roosevelt was regal, Truman was no-nonsense, and Eisenhower betrayed the gravitas and reserve of a career military officer. Kennedy was young but precocious, and what Johnson lacked in the social graces he made up for with raw political instinct. Nixon was the first President of the modern era to fail the test of temperament, and Ford subsequently overcompensated with sheer mind-numbing boredom. Carter was superbly disposed temperamentally, if not behaviorally, and Ronald Reagan was able to obfuscate his considerable shortcomings with Hollywood charisma. George H. W. Bush did fine in a folksy sort of way, and Clinton’s intelligence and political genius managed to outweigh his intemperate libido. No one would accuse George W. Bush of possessing exceptional Presidential temperament—although he has done better since his retirement from office—and Barack Obama, in this particular domain, simply has no equal.
This brings us to the current occupant of the White House, who is noteworthy primarily by virtue of his staggering and obvious lack of suitability for the office—the first modern President for whom such a claim can be made. Donald Trump somehow manages to fail acceptable temperamental standards in almost every conceivable way. There is no characteristic traditionally deemed “Presidential” that he possesses, and few that he does not actively eschew.
Trump is supremely arrogant, boorish, loud, obnoxious, and obtuse. He speaks without thinking—not as a matter of enthusiasm, but as a matter of inability—and what he says is by turns self-aggrandizing and impenetrable. Trump is neither studious nor circumspect. He does not read, he does not prepare, and he has no discernible knowledge of American legal or cultural history. He is replete with half-basked contrivance, and he is congenitally unable to speak truthfully. He is not an intelligent man, he does not understand the machinations of government, and he has surrounded himself with cynical sycophants who range from the merely incompetent to those who aggressively seek to gut the governmental functions that they purport to lead. Donald Trump is the nadir of exemplary temperament.
It is perhaps a small blessing, then, that Trump does not speak for all Americans, nor even attempt to do so. When he does speak it is invariably infused with cruelty and malice. He knows only three subjects with any depth—self-promotion, litigation, and the excessive use of exclamation points. He is friendless, tasteless, humorless, lawless, and about twelve other pejorative attributes that end with less. In every way that matters, Donald Trump is a disgraceful human being.
Some among us believe that the lack of even rudimentary bon ton bonhomie is what ideally suits him to the Presidency. He is the affliction of the elites, they claim; the irreverent outsider, come to kick some entitlement ass and Drain The Washington Swamp. It must be said that these people are idiots, for at least two reasons. First, Donald Trump has only drained the swamp so as to replace it with a white nationalist sewer. Although unsurprising, this is not what he promised, nor what any sane citizen had in mind. Second, and more important, Trump’s idic temperament is rapidly hollowing out and suffusing the American character with malice.
Humans are social animals, and it is in the nature of our social hierarchy that organizations adopt the characteristics of their leaders. Like the matter of temperament itself, this is something that we all understand instinctively, even if we do not witness the complexities of cultural cause and effect so readily. This is why we regard the matter of temperament as vital to any leadership role, and it is why the emergence of Donald Trump is such a catastrophic development for our nation.
Accordingly, within just eighteen months, the diminution of our society has become completely obvious. America is becoming coarse, and angry, and arrogant beyond even our previously unbecoming impulses. We are stoking the fires of racism, and misogyny, and bigotry anew. We are literally becoming stupider as we choose fiction over fact, propaganda over journalism, church over state, and ideology over education. We are privatizing our prisons, our schools, and our military in the mindless belief that the invisible hand of the market is somehow preferable to the thoughtful work of intelligent, experienced, dedicated human beings. We are becoming poorer as the gig economy eviscerates the middle class while the richest among us fleece our society of its collective wealth. We are dispensing with the plain meaning of the constitution and the rule of law in favor of corporate personhood, gun ownership, and the sale of jurisprudence for thirty pieces of silver. We are unhappy, unhealthy, and unwell.
Trump is the root cause of none of these trends. They have been metastasizing in Republican and Libertarian circles for the poorer part of thirty years. But Trump has given them vociferous voice and political legitimacy, and with it, appalling and undeserved stature. Collectively, these are the attributes of tyranny. They are suited to carnival barkers and criminal enterprise, but not to conscientious leadership of any kind. The Republican Party has given birth to an American tapeworm, and we are becoming hollow. As the head of that parasite, Donald Trump now embodies the apoapsis of Presidential temperament, and we are starving for honorable leadership. We are starving for hope.
None of this is in serious dispute. One wonders, then, how it is that a man like Trump can rise to, and be supported in this role by anyone with even a rudimentary conscience. How is the alleged “cure” not worse than the alleged disease? How is the sewer not worse than the swamp? The price of these demagogic “riches”—unchecked political power, neofascism, and naked greed—is the very soul of the nation, and by extension, the welfare of the civilized world.
If the word “American” has any meaning at all, it is the opposite of Trumpian temperament. Our society is far from perfect, but we are not, in our nature, fascists. We are not, by temperament, cruel, and we do not abide the use of fear as the operative instrument of governance. The GOP has forgotten these most basic of American values. Donald Trump, for his part, has never known them. The rest of us—the majority of us—look on in sheer, abject horror as these criminals tweet our country toward kleptocracy, kakistocracy, and authoritarianism.
Organizations invariably adopt the characteristics of their leadership. If Donald Trump is the price you are willing to pay—no matter the reason—for your comfort, or your wealth, or your personal power, then you, too, have become a disgraceful human being. You, too, have become a parasite. Donald Trump is the symptom of a much more insidious problem, and you are the problem—not only in the matter of American temperament, and its once and future reverence for common human decency. You are the problem with the entire human race.