Does ‘Character’ Still Count in American Politics?
Marjorie Garber on the Etymology and Abuses of a Weighty Word
“Character does count in America and in the United States Senate,” declared majority leader Mitch McConnell in November 2017, recalling how, as a junior senator more than 20 years before, he had pushed to remove Republican senator Bob Packwood of Oregon from office after several women accused Packwood of harassment or abuse. (Packwood resigned in 1995.) However, as The New York Times reported, McConnell “sidestep[ped] a question about whether he would support” such an ouster if Roy Moore was elected to the Senate in 2018. In the event, since Moore lost, McConnell was not put to this character test himself.
Meantime, in the previous month, President Trump had publicly commemorated National Character Counts Week, proclaiming, “Few things are more important than cultivating strong character in all our citizens, especially our young people.” This annual event, held in October, has been observed since 1993. But Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post, citing Trump’s pro-character proclamation as an example of the world turned upside down, noted that Trump had that year “apparently decided to mark [the occasion]” by “feuding with the National Football League, lying about his predecessors’ treatment of Gold Star families to excuse his own lapses and making mockery of his already-enfeebled excuse for the most damaging act of his young presidency, his decision to fire FBI director James B. Comey.” Rosenberg went on to insist that this was a time to “figure out what it means to be good. Though character has always been an essential quality, these days, we need it more than ever.”
I was struck by this earnest entreaty in connection with Trump’s emphasis on cultivating “strong character . . . especially in our young people” and Rosenberg’s phrase “young presidency.” A perfectly accurate description of the short months between Trump’s inauguration and his firing of Comey, “young presidency” also seemed to echo, with subdued irony, the many comments critics had made about the president’s immaturity, lack of discipline and focus, impatience, restlessness, and unstoppable narcissism. “When the World Is Led by a Child” was the headline of a David Brooks column that called Trump an “infantilist” and pointed out that “immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.” The president, wrote Brooks, may have “betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors” not because of any “malevolent intent,” but “because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a seven-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.”
Like many other columnists and editorial writers, Brooks was offering these remarks as much in sorrow as in anger, but also in fear for the future. Drawing on the etymology of “character,” he asserts that “our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties.” “Engraved” here seems to imply permanence and stability, the very attributes Brooks—and so many others—were finding that Trump manifestly lacked.
The permanent engraving of character, in this view, develops through experience and maturity, and the metaphor of writing it suggests it is highly pertinent. “When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent,” wrote Brooks, but Trump’s statements don’t “come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.”
If “character counts,” or “character matters,” as many columnists— and some politicians—have insisted, these testimonies to the “loathsome,” “weak,” “failing,” and “narcissistic” character on the part of the nation’s chief executive should have brought this familiar 19th-century standard for high office into sharp focus once again.
But through its frequent iteration, the word “character” may have lost some of its power.
The proud and faux-pious declaration that a revealed miscreant is “not a perfect man,” or that one “never said” one was “perfect” is another instance of the rhetoric of hypocrisy. In its long history, character has never been equated with or mistaken for perfection; often, in fact, it has represented, or seemed to represent, a concerted effort of self-control as well as a sense of public and private duty. Perfection is nowhere on the character map; in fact, character might be said to be perfection’s opposite, a quality, or set of qualities, earned and maintained by conscious effort and choice.
“A man of the utmost character, honor, and integrity” is how a Republican congressional representative described Congressman Jim Jordan, who was accused of ignoring athletes’ claims of sexual abuse by the team doctor when he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University. Other supporters praised his “honesty” and “integrity” with what the editorial board of The New York Times called a “Manchurian Candidate–like ubiquity.” President Trump said Jordan was “an outstanding man,” whom he believed “100 percent.”
Political partisanship and a closing of the ranks accounted for the flood of instant praise—Jordan had been bruited as a leading candidate for Speaker of the House. But the use of “character” as a defense once again raised the question of whether, and how much, this time-honored concept had been devalued. Jordan couldn’t be guilty of ignoring the welfare of athletes when he was in his 20s, because he was “a man of the utmost character.”
The logic was tautological at best—no activities of conscience were cited in his defense, just the same old key words. The testimonies of at least eight of the former college wrestlers were, in the view of Jordan’s supporters, not worth considering. The doctor said to have been the perpetrator of the abuses had committed suicide in 2005. But Jordan couldn’t be guilty of failing the athletes’ trust, because he was a man of character.
There are men of character in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate. There are women of character, too. But the evidence for “character” needs to be something other than the iteration of the word itself.
The journalist Emma Roller offered a useful reading of the character debate: “Every presidential candidate plays a character, whether he or she admits it or not. We have the disheveled revolutionary, the pious doctor, the levelheaded statesman. The character Mr. Trump plays may be more honest than that of any of his rivals: He’s the ambitious businessman who cares only about winning.” By injecting the notion of character as role rather than as “authenticity” into the discussion, her observation opens the question: what do we mean when we use a word like “character” to describe a public persona?
“The part he’s been playing is evolving,” said Donald Trump’s newly installed campaign chief, Paul Manafort, to members of the Republican National Committee in late April 2016. The acknowledgment that Trump was acting, or performing a “part,” was offered not as an excuse but as a description, a review of political theater in the round. “Fixing personality negatives is a lot easier than fixing character negatives,” Manafort asserted, reflecting on what he regarded as Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings. “You can’t change somebody’s character. But you can change the way somebody presents themselves.”
Manafort’s distinction between character and personality, the one fixed and immutable, the other not only mutable but performative, does not necessarily accord with the way those words are used by psychiatrists and psychologists today.
“Personality” comes from “persona,” a word for mask; “character” from handwriting, engraving, or stamping. It’s arguable that in some sense the distinction between outer and inner, fleeting or lasting, might apply. Of the two terms, personality and character, it is the word “character” that often, and sometimes confusingly, crosses over from theater or fiction to “real life.” But in the case of Donald Trump, who developed his public persona via a television “reality show,” character, personality, and performance are sometimes hard to disentangle. Like Peer Gynt, whose self is described by Ibsen as like an onion with no center, Trump seems to have layers but no core. Unsurprisingly, the Trump critic Charles Blow responded with interest to the idea that, “up until now, the real estate developer’s incendiary style was just an act.” He speculated on how all Trump’s supporters must feel on hearing that “maybe this has all been an act, a ‘part he’s been playing,’ and you are the gullible audience who got played.”
What is the relationship—if any—between a dramatic or fictional character and the idea of “character” in the ethical or moral sense? Which comes first, character or characters?
What we call “literary characters” are very often presented, not only as exemplars of character and character types, but as models for them. No matter what the field, from philosophy to politics to the arts and sciences, it is not always easy—indeed, it is not always possible—to tell which came first. Over and over again, as we will see throughout these pages, what is often thought of as a secondary effect (literature copying life) turns out to have been a primary one (life copying literature).
Let’s look at one more example from recent U.S. political history, the proud, and even perhaps defiant or defensive, assertion by then-President George W. Bush that he was the “decider,” whatever his advisers—including many retired generals, appalled by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal—might propose. The decision in question was, initially, that of retaining Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best,” Bush declared in the White House Rose Garden. “And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as secretary of defense.” First rolled out on April 19, 2006, the word “decider” became an instant hit and an instant joke. The New York Times’s “quotation of the day” morphed into a comic-book character called “the Decider” on Jon Stewart’s satirical Daily Show. “Decider” was, in itself, a slightly peculiar word, something a grade-schooler might say. Bush’s rhetorical signature was this kind of awkward lexical choice (was it a response to his father’s famously “patrician” convolutions of expression?), and “decider,” rather than, say, “the person who makes the hard decisions,” had a certain active—or action-hero—quality to it that stuck. (An earlier U.S. president, Harry Truman, had popularized a more colorful version, taken from the game of poker, and displayed on a sign on his desk: “The Buck Stops Here.”)
Is “decision,” or being a “decider,” intrinsic to good character?
In 1804, a Baptist preacher, John Foster, published an essay called “On Decision of Character,” which strongly influenced Romantic poets and painters as well as politicians, moralists, and phrenologists. The essay, in the form of a letter addressed to a friend, went through nine editions from 1804 to 1830. “Character,” to Foster, meant exhibiting this “bold” and “commanding” quality, of which “courage” was a “chief constituent,” and avoiding the troubles of “an irresolute mind.” His examples of men of decision (“women in general have less inflexibility of character than men”) come from the Bible (Daniel), ancient and modern history (Caesar, Luther, Cromwell, Christian missionaries), and literature—Milton’s Paradise Lost (Satan, Abdiel) and, especially, Shakespeare’s plays (Lady Macbeth—as usual, an exception that proves the supposed rule about women—as well as Macbeth, Richard III, and Prospero). Although Hamlet is not explicitly named, the long discussion of the man of “irresolute mind” is familiarly evocative, and when Foster comes to characterize the “first rank of decisive men,” he contrasts it with those who, distracted by love or other personal concerns, are forgetful of all “enterprises of great pith and moment,” clearly assuming that his readers will recognize this phrase from the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
Foster is not indifferent to moral virtue, but he understands that “decision” does not always mean “ethical decision.” In describing what his age called “a Ruling Passion,” he notes, “When its object is noble, and an enlightened understanding regulates its movements, it appears to me a great felicity; but whether its object be noble or not, it infallibly creates where it exists in great force, that active ardent constancy, which I describe as a capital feature of the decisive character.” Although by “character” here he means to denote a constellation of personal qualities that he is recommending to his reader, the crossover between the fictional (Satan, Hamlet) and the historical or local in Foster’s exemplars is untroubled and, in the main, untroubling.
For those who subscribe to a ruling-passion theory of human nature, literary characters not only have “character” in the sense of interiority and firmness of purpose, but they also model it for others. In “the poet’s delineation,” Foster wrote, Richard III “did not waver while he pursued his object, nor relent when he seized it.” Here, too, as in the case of Hamlet, the mention of a Shakespearean character is accompanied by a quotation, as Foster cites Richard of Gloucester’s determination to “cut his way through with a bloody axe.” This is a slight misquotation—the speech, from Henry VI Part 3, has Richard say he will “hew my way out with a bloody axe”—but the misquotation is itself indicative of how familiar these Shakespearean dramatic personages were to the writer and his presumed readership. Foster is recalling Richard’s speech from memory, not looking it up in order to add gravitas to his essay. And, once again, the model for “character” is a character.
Excerpted from Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession by Marjorie Garber. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.