WASHINGTON – Donald Trump is often credited with distilling Jeb Bush’s main electoral challenge: that he is “low energy.” It fits Bush well enough (more accurately, he is a cerebral introvert) to be damaging. But it is Bush, in turn, who has captured the essence of Trump as the “chaos candidate.” We have yet to determine if Trump’s approach is a drawback or a disturbingly effective new method of presidential campaigning.
Since the summer, Trump has advanced in a series of taunts, outlandish statements and feuds that have kept him on the center stage of American life. It reflects the persona he developed on “Celebrity Apprentice,” but see also his “Battle of the Billionaires” against Vince McMahon at WrestleMania in 2007. “I’m taller than you,” he told McMahon. “I’m better-looking than you. I think I’m stronger than you.”
Sometimes a columnist must step back, breathe in, breathe out, and consider where the journey has brought us. Days away from the first votes of the presidential nomination process, the prohibitive Republican front-runner is successfully applying the lessons of his pro wrestling career to dominate media coverage and prevent opponents from gaining attention and traction. God help us.
The feud this time is with Megyn Kelly, Roger Ailes and Fox News – illustrating the distinction between Trump’s populism and movement conservatism (a gap that Ted Cruz seeks to exploit). But it is worth recalling how it all started. “Mr. Trump,” asked Kelly in an earlier debate, “one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.’ … Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
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This is the word – temperament – that will eventually sink the Trump campaign, if it is eventually sunk. We are witnessing what happens when a narcissist who thinks he is at the center of the universe is actually placed at the center of the universe. There is the need for adulation. There are the fantasies of unlimited power – see Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin. There is the expectation of special treatment – see his debate boycott. There is the lack of empathy – see his cruel mocking of a disabled reporter.
Leadership is often evidenced in relatively small things. Shortly after his election in 2000, I was with President George W. Bush in the family theater at the White House where he was practicing his first address to Congress. For whatever reason, the military is charged with teleprompter operation, and the operator had messed up his job. An angry Bush said, “Call me when you get your act together” and stalked out of the room. The young man was distraught. But a few minutes later, Bush returned and apologized to the operator, saying: “That is not the way the president of the United States should act.”
A small thing, but I remember it. The office confers an awesome power to elevate the lives of those around a president, or to destroy them.
I thought of this when Trump delivered his rant earlier this month in Pensacola at a rally where his microphone was malfunctioning. “Whoever the hell bought this mic system, don’t pay the son of a bitch who brought it in,” he told the crowd. “I believe in paying, but when someone does a bad job like this stupid mic, you shouldn’t pay the bastard.”
My point is not that Trump should be more polite to the help. It is that the temperament and character of a man or woman gets magnified and amplified by the power of the presidency. There must be some inner check to avoid the abuse of power. Chuck Colson said it was Richard Nixon’s “us-versus-them” mentality that led to the creation of “the plumbers” – the group charged with plugging press leaks, eventually triggering the Watergate scandal. The attitudes and leadership style of a president inspire or infect his entire administration.
It is a tribute to the seriousness of the Trump candidacy that we should be considering the real-world consequences of his temperament. But his feud-seeking, his personal insults, his shock-jock transgressiveness, his sexism, his mocking of those with disabilities, his clumsy deceptions, his toxic leadership style, his cultivation of chaos should be issues in this campaign. And they should be disqualifying in a prospective president.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.