When Does Character Not Matter?

The Trump phenomenon got me to wondering: When does character matter? Should character matter? I used to think the answer was obvious. I was wrong.

No one can seriously argue that Mr. Trump is a man of good character. After all:

  • He lies all the time.
  • He had sex with a porn star four months after Mrs. Trump gave birth to their son.
  • He’s bragged about assaulting women.
  • He regularly mistreats and humiliates people, including firing people by tweet.
  • He pokes fun at disabled people.
  • He’s racist and ridicules people because of their race or ethnicity.
  • He’s crude and vulgar.
  • He calls people losers just because they don’t support him.
  • He stiffs contractors.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of good character in this man. His character is just about as bad as it comes. Yet he’s popular with millions of Americans, including many self-professing Christians.

It’s clear, then, that character doesn’t matter to many of my fellow Americans. Which makes me wonder, am I making too big a deal over Mr. Trump’s character flaws? Should we be concerned only about his official decisions and policies and not be distracted by the man himself?

I’ve pondered these questions a lot during the past 17 months, especially when I find myself agreeing with one of his policies. My quick reaction is to be judgmental, both of the man and those who empowered him. Yet it’s hard to dismiss the reality that, to millions of people, Mr. Trump’s character is not a sufficient reason to withhold their support. Could so many people be so wrong?

I’ve come to the conclusion that whether the voters were wrong or not in supporting such a despicable man is not my concern. I am not responsible for the decisions of others and, in any event, there’s nothing I can do about it. It is what it is.

But I’ve also concluded that, at least for me, character does matter. A lot.

It’s not that I think any politician is a saint. Or that any of us are for that matter. But that doesn’t mean I have to support someone who is seemingly devoid of good character traits. Or vote for them.

It also doesn’t mean I have to work for liars, swindlers, or thieves, or for people who are crude and vulgar, or who harass subordinates or take advantage of other people. Admittedly, I’ve been lucky: I’ve never been in the position of having to work for anyone of really bad character, save one instance. And in that instance, I could leave, so it wasn’t a big deal.

I realize some people might not have the luxury of walking away from a job. I also surmise it’s possible to work for a bad actor without supporting him or allowing him to contaminate your own character and conduct. But sometimes it isn’t possible.

In fact, sometimes bad actors pull others into their orbit, and before you know it the person who thought he had better character now finds himself lying, cheating, or stealing his way through the work day. Most if not all of us have encountered such people.

They can make excuses and say they’re just doing their job (the Nuremberg defense). And, indeed, they might get a pass from society because of that defense. But whether or not they get a pass, they’re dirty. And no other person has the power to wash that filth away. Only the individual controls his or her actions. Only the individual gets to decide where to draw the line.

As with the concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany, sometimes there is a lot at stake in doing the right thing, or at least in refusing to do the wrong thing. Few if any of us will ever have our lives at stake as the prison guards did. but quite a few of us have had or will have our jobs or livelihood at stake. Doing the right and honorable thing can be costly indeed.

But doing the wrong thing can be rewarding, as Mr. Trump and others have demonstrated — rewarding from a financial perspective that is. Or from the perspective of position and power.

So, does character matter? It’s easy to have an opinion on whether Mr. Trump’s character should matter. The issue of character is a harder one to confront when it involves one’s own. Especially if doing the right thing comes at a cost.

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