WASHINGTON D.C. - At some point after Donald Trump is defeated in November or impeached some time after that, America will take a hung-over look in our collective mirror and get a cold chill at the thought of how far this bad man got.
The explanations we use now - angry white males, Hillary Clinton's unpopularity, celebrity culture, the urge to nuke the establishment - are helpful, but they don't add up to 100 per cent. And they go too easy on Trump’s fans and foes alike.
Voting for Trump is akin to voting for Richard Nixon after Watergate exposed his venality, paranoia, racism and disregard of the law. Trump has always been an open book of vices. He embraces them every day on the campaign. They are evident in his biography.
Have so many voters in this country ever embraced a known sinner like Trump? Has a major party ever nominated such a delinquent? Of course not.
In a recent debate, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, said that Trump was a role model for children. Ayotte issued an emergency retraction within hours, well before bedtime when New Hampshire’s children might have had nightmares about the troll model Trump. “I misspoke tonight,” Ayotte said in the statement.
What parent could think of Donald Trump as a role model? It’s hard to imagine. Americans have always had a healthy skepticism of politicians as a class. We’re rarely inclined toward political hero worship. We don’t expect even our presidents to be saints in their private lives, as Bill Clinton amply proved.
But voters are tough and usually keen judges of character and values – and character judgment guides vote much more than policy analysis. With good reason.
“The President is the symbol of who the people of the United States are,” a leading conservative intellectual wrote. “He is the person who stands for us in the eyes of the world and the eyes of our children.”
That was written by William J. Bennett. For those who don’t remember, Bennett was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education. He went on to a big career as America’s top conservative purveyor of virtue and moral tutelage. His 1993 “The Book of Virtues” was a best seller, as was “The Children’s Book of Virtues.”
As that bastion of American conservatism and Trump opposition, the National Review pointed out recently, no one exemplifies the moral hypocrisy of conservative and Republican Trump-coddlers than Bennett.
The philosophic and pragmatic core of conservatism in the West has always been about conserving the wisdom, traditions and values that evolve in society throughout history, and skepticism about change, iconoclasm and social engineering.
“It is our character that supports the promise of our future -- far more than particular government programs or policies,” Bennett wrote in a passage National Review unearthed.
“If we are surrounded by the trivial and the vicious, it is all too easy to make our peace with it,” he wrote.
Well, Wise William has certainly made peace with the trivial and vicious Donald Trump, whom he supports. What is his reason for backing a man who has been called a “Howard Stern conservative”?
Well, Trump does not need to “speak to” the “Never Trumpers,” Bennett said, “who suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.” That’s rich, William Bennett scolding Trump’s opponents for sanctimony.
“Anybody played team sports out there, let’s get behind this guy,” Bennett said. Yes, compromise your beliefs, ethical palette and sense of decency for the sake of team spirit.
Bennett is just an extreme example of the moral and character blindness that has infected so many Trumpers. Yes, many Republicans have fought Trump ferociously, especially national security officials, congressional alumni and conservative polemicists. But the core Republican Party infrastructure (establishment is too strong a word these days) has coddled this candidate who mocks all traditional conservative values and mores.
Pre-2016, American conservatives might have said the problem is “moral relativism,” an amoral willingness to tolerate or even enjoy Trump’s blatant, promiscuous immorality and vice.
Kelly Ayotte had it right and it is obvious and intuitive: Trump is the opposite of a role model. He ostentatiously relishes his greed, conceit, power and meanness. He lies relentlessly and admits it occasionally, usually with a grin and wink. He is the ultimate “me first-er.” This is all as obvious as his helmet of orange hair.
So why do roughly 40 percent of potential voters like the man? Why has the Republican Party sold its soul to him, cheaply? Why are the rest of us unable to make the case against Trump?
I do not believe that anyone of such obvious and widely recognized low character has ever gotten so far in American politics as Trump.
I think and hope that the particular mix of conditions that spawned Hurricane Donald - white anger, economic anxiety, racism, nativism and “know nothing-ism” - will wane over time. I am less sanguine about our character judgment.
Dick Meyer is the Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News and DecodeDC.