Query:

I thought of your views today when I read today’s Town Hall column by Walter Williams, “Bad Men, Good Presidents.”

There have been many times in the past two years that I have wished that I could chat with you about the connection between moral character and political greatness – a connection you raised explicitly way back in the Clinton years.  Some day, perhaps.

 

Reply:

I would enjoy chatting too.  Thanks for your letter, and for calling my attention to Walter Williams’ essay. 

Mr. Williams argues that although the current president “does not have the personal character that we would want our children to imitate,” he “has turned out to be a good president, save his grossly misguided international trade policies.”  Some of the actions for which Williams praises the president are making good nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, significantly rolling back federal regulations, ending the Obamacare “mandate,” and getting the United States out of the fraudulent nuclear deal with Iran.

Of course Williams recognizes that Left will view the same actions as “horrible, maybe treasonous,” but does not trouble me; I don’t agree with the Left.  Regarding some of the other things Williams approves, such as making a sort of progress with Kim Jong Un, I think Williams’ judgment is premature, but certainly the old policy appeasing the tyrant in return for promises no one expected him to keep wasn’t working.

So should I change my view that a bad man cannot be a good statesman?  No.

Trump apologists always overlook the same problems with bad men.  Williams’ view of a good president is one who does more good things than bad ones.  If that’s what a good president is, then of course a bad man can be a good president.

But it’s the wrong criterion.  When people like me say a bad man cannot be a good president, that is not what they mean.  I have never denied that a bad man can do some good things.  In fact I’ve insisted on it.

So what is the problem?

As I wrote in an earlier post, “in the first place, the bad man’s motive is flawed, so if it suits his purposes, he is just as likely to do something evil.  You cannot be confident that he will do the right thing.”

“In the second place,” I wrote, “just because his motive is flawed, even when he does intend a good act, he is likely to do it in an evil way.”

Moreover, “there are some good things he cannot do even if they do chance to coincide with his motives.  For example, he cannot successfully promote good character in others, and will probably injure it by example.”

“Besides,” I concluded, “No matter what he does, he will lie to you about it.”

I see no reason to withdraw any of these points.  The third is especially important.  Trump’s vices drag all of us down, just as Clinton’s did a generation ago.

Conceded, the view I am defending is not popular on either side of the political schism.  On both the Left and Right, activists think that a thug is all right so long as he is our thug.

Couldn’t there be reasons for voting for a bad man?  Yes, of course.  If both candidates are depraved, but there is good reason to believe that one of them may tend to do better things than the other, then provided that voting for him does not involve formal cooperation with evil, one should vote for him.  In that sense, sure, we will have to see how things work out with Mr. Trump.

But no one should deceive himself that doing the things that we want him to do will make him a good president.

See also:

What It Really Means to Be Great

But He’s Our Thug, Take 2

Does Peggy Noonan Read This Blog?

Talk:  The Problem with Liberalism – and Conservatism