Before diving into our exploration of the central ideas of conservatism, I think we need to clear up a few high-level questions about politics now that Trump has been elected. For instance, why should conservatives actually care about character in public office as long as the candidate’s platform is conservative? Or, now that Trump has won, shouldn’t we just mend our fences with conservatives of different stripes, make the best of it, and move ahead? Finally, if we truly believe the Republican Party no longer represents the interests of social conservatives, is forming a new party really a good idea, given the record of third parties in American history?
These are all questions worthy of further consideration, so today we will start with the question of whether personal character really matters in public office. My answer is a definite “yes.” Let’s consider why.
No leader in a high office can ever be prepared for the demands placed upon him or her. History unfolds before us in ways we could never foresee, and so it is impossible to predict what technical skills and experiences will be needed by those in the highest ranks of power. Even if it were possible to know in advance what particular expertise would be needed to navigate a difficult situation like the Cuban Missile Crisis, 9/11, economic collapse, natural disaster recovery, or many others, the best person to lead a country would not necessarily be someone with technical skill in the appropriate academic or practical discipline. For while it is important to have technical experts to advise a leader in all kinds of situations, experts with power are often not well-suited to understand and balance the competing interests of all those affected, to understand the nuances of leadership and inspiration, or to understand the limitations of technical knowledge in general. Expertise, if not carefully checked, easily leads to a blinding arrogance, as we have seen on numerous occasions, whether from economic forecasters prior to the recent Great Recession, to the scholars who declared the “end of history” after the fall of the Soviet Union, or to the pollsters and pundits who convinced many (including myself) that there was no way Donald Trump could win.
While technical expertise can provide important information, it is not of primary importance for leaders when they are making difficult decisions. What leaders need most is wisdom: the ability to encounter novel challenges, weigh the various possible responses and their likely effects, and make moral decisions with both humility and confidence. Leaders do not need some discrete body of knowledge; they need a method for deliberately considering and acting on any problem they encounter, even those for which no experts exist. Or as David Brooks describes it in his excellent book The Road to Character (p. 9):
[Wisdom is] the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.
So where does wisdom come from? It comes from the slow accretion of character, the virtues of experience summarized well by the Apostle Paul as the fruits of the Spirit. Again David Brooks (p. 263-264):
Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness….If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind. You are making it more likely that you will desire the right things and execute the right actions.
Character can only come to those who recognize their ignorance in the face of life’s mysteries and embrace their own smallness. For me as a Christian, character involves subordinating my desires to God by accepting that I can never have a full understanding of even myself, much less the world around me. Getting the self out of the way allows for the calm consideration that is necessary to catch glimpses of the world as it really is, and how we must act in it.
To bring this around to our original point, if our leaders need wisdom to lead well, and character is the font of wisdom, then character should be the defining trait we seek in our leaders. Regardless of a candidate’s political platform, we must look for those signs of character that are visible in action: peace, patience, kindness, loyalty, gentleness, self-control, and above all, love.
As a rule, the political class lacks strong character, though there are exceptions and also clear gradations between individuals. But sometimes a politician’s character is obviously unacceptable, and in such cases it is folly to support them just because they claim to represent your preferred political platform.
Of course I now speak of Donald Trump. This man has no love for anyone but himself. He takes joy in others’ misfortune. He sows division rather than seeking peace. He has no faithfulness to his own family, much less to God or to his neighbor. He considers gentleness to be only for the weak, and he is devoid entirely of self-control. That is to say, he has no character, and thus, we should not expect him to make wise decisions, particularly in the tense moments of the unexpected crises that inevitably define presidencies.
But Trump has been elected and we cannot undo that. As a result, the party that used to make arguments for character has been indelibly sullied. The Democrats, on the other hand, base their definitions of character in ever-changing morals, defined not by some external higher power or natural order, but by the current zeitgeist. So while I understand my more liberal friends now claiming the mantle of character for their own party, which in comparison to Donald Trump is justifiable, in the long-term the party of character must also subscribe to ideas of natural moral order to maintain any sort of constancy. Otherwise, eventually everything becomes permissible.
So to summarize, the most important trait for political leaders is wisdom, which allows them to make good decisions even in unprecedented situations. Wisdom is gained through the development of character, which comes by internalizing the moral lessons of experience and honing these lessons into instincts which can be acted upon. And this is why character matters in the public sphere, and why conservatives everywhere ought to prioritize character in those they support. Unfortunately, the Republican Party has abandoned this stance, and so we must move on and consider forming a new conservative party.
In my next post we will consider a more practical matter: how should conservatives relate to Trump and his supporters now that he has been elected?