By Jon Hysell
History tells us that democracy is fragile. As in the past, our current strident tribal politics puts our national unity at risk. Even amongst our divisions, most everyone agrees our nation needs leaders who bring us together to support shared goals and fulfill common aspirations. We find ourselves asking, do the policies our leaders implement matter more than their character?
We only need to look at one example to see how far apart some American political factions have become. In a recent essay in The Washington Post Emily S. Johnson, an assistant professor of history at Ball State University suggests evangelicals value Donald Trump’s policies more than his personal character. Conservative judgeships, anti-abortion legislation and smaller government appear to matter more than “having our national leader exemplify fundamental personal character.” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a prominent evangelical activist group emphatically endorsed this position as he defended the president’s marital infidelities in a recent podcast “We kind of gave him (Trump) — ‘All right, you get a mulligan.” Democratic party leaders reacted with shocked indignation and, at the risk of occasional self-incrimination, called it a hypocritical abandonment of “family values” for political gain. We could hardly be more disunited in our positions.
A noted biographer of American political leaders, Ron Chernow, recently said, “Politics boils down to the stories we tell ourselves. And unfortunately, we tell ourselves different stories…Unless we know where we’ve been as a country, we don’t know where we are or where we are going.” Perhaps the character of one of our most revered leaders can help define a standard of judgment for us today.
George Washington’s actions and words offer needed guidance. Washington posed an alternative to our current tribalism. In his Farewell Address of 1797, he said, “The unity of government, which constitutes you, one people, is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence; the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize…To the efficacy and permanency of your union, a government of the whole is indispensable. No alliances, however strict, between the parts, can be an adequate substitute.”
Washington wisely foresaw the risk created by absolutist party politics. He warned us further in that same address that disunity creates “disorders and miseries which result,” and “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual. And, sooner or later, the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
Our first president is famous not just for what he did but also for what he didn’t do (like tell lies). In 1783 public adulation for Washington and his control of the army would have generated ample support for his ascension as a monarch. Instead, he resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army.
In 1797 he did not seek a third term even though he could easily have won one. In doing so he became the American Cincinnatus, the Roman statesman who twice relinquished his near-absolute authority leadership of the Roman Empire to return to his farm.
Washington, in surrendering power — not just once, but twice — was bucking an imperialist pattern that stretched back to the days of the Roman republics and, sadly, continues to this day, most notably in Vladimir Putin’s recent overwhelming election to a fourth term as president of the Russian Federation.
Trying to see George Washington’s behavior through today’s cynical lens doesn’t quite work for me. The typical failings of human nature — greed, power, pride — just don’t explain him. Rather, his core beliefs — his character — allowed him to rise above his base instincts and therefore point a way for other presidents to act in support of the greater good.
In The American Soul, Jacob Needleman urges us to read Washington’s words as “referring to the need for both the nation and the individual self to turn within for strength, not to the egoistic impulses of one or another self-serving part of human nature, but to the inner self that represents the fountainhead of inner unity.” Others thinkers like Joseph Campbell in his book A Hero’s Journey foresaw tragic results by being governed by “a self-centered world, a world in which one will never find true courage, self-confidence, communal sense, or understanding of common values.” Given Washington’s example, following leaders who are “ego imperialists” seems fundamentally unwise and, at least, anti-democratic (small d).
In his nomination acceptance speech in 2016, Donald J. Trump seemed to intentionally, or perhaps inadvertently, position himself as the anti-Washington. Citing his experience as a freewheeling entrepreneur and a powerful business executive he told us his actions were validated by his accumulation of great wealth. These “ends justify the means” approach to governing tells us much about his character. Trump’s proposed solution to our real and perceived national woes was to endorse him without reservation. “I am your voice… I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.” He did not ask Americans to measure him against Washingtonian values or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not appeal to a higher power. He did not ask for our help. Rather he asked us to place our complete faith in him.
When loyalty trumps all else, a leader asks us to accept his retaliatory reactions to those who disagree with him. President Trump has demonstrated throughout his adult career a need to insult, intimidate, threaten, sue and demean his opponents. The need to lash out at those he wishes to weaken seems deeply embedded in his character. But at what expense?
When one tries to minimize this lifelong characteristic as an attribute of a leader who cares little about being ‘politically correct,’ one agrees that such rhetoric is ok even as it further divides us and deflects the national dialogue away from fundamental issues that could bring us together.
The United States was not founded on a common origin, language, or religion that could be taken for granted as the original source of national identity. Instead, it was founded on a set of beliefs and principles, truths that we hold to be “self-evident.” To become an American citizen is not a matter of genetics or inherited pedigree but, rather, a matter of embracing the values established at the founding. These ideal accords the men who invented them a special significance for me. Our founders felt that character mattered. Some leaders win and some fail in their struggle to tame their venal, egoistic ambitions, passions and prejudices in the service of the greater good. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if our current president embodies the character of George Washington.