In a recent article promoting a vote for Donald Trump as “a morally good choice,” theology professor Wayne Grudem, of Phoenix Seminary, addresses the question of Trump’s character. This is an obvious (I would say insurmountable) obstacle for anyone attempting to argue the moral goodness of a vote for Trump.
Grudem attempts to dismiss the problem with three remarkably short arguments near the end of his rather long article. After more than 4,000 words expatiating all the terrible things he thinks will happen if Clinton is elected and all the wonderful things he thinks will happen if Trump is elected, Grudem skates past the character question in a breezy 97 words. Here they are:
“I believe that character does matter, but I think Trump’s character is far better than what is portrayed by much current political mud-slinging, and far better than his opponent’s character. In addition, if someone makes doubts about character the only factor to consider, that is a fallacy in ethical reasoning that I call “reductionism” – the mistake of reducing every argument to only one factor, when the situation requires that multiple factors be considered. In this election, an even larger factor is the future of the nation that would flow from a Clinton or a Trump presidency.”
Grudem’s first argument is that Trump’s character has been falsely represented as being bad. He doesn’t say what manifestations of Trump’s bad character he believes to be untrue. Let’s look at the record. Trump carried on an adulterous affair with Marla Maples while married to his first wife, Ivana. He then divorced Ivana and married Maples. Then he carried on an adulterous affair with Melania Knauss, divorced Maples, and married Melania. In his book The Art of the Deal, Trump boasted of committing adultery with other men’s wives. Trump owned the Trump Plaza Casino, the Trump Marina Casino, the Trump Taj Mahal Casino, the Trump Castle Casino, and the Spotlight 29 Casino. Trump was the first to put a strip club into a casino. He also did obscene interviews on Howard Stern’s radio show.
Trump publicly mocked a handicapped man. He routinely refuses to pay contractors what he agreed to pay them, daring them to take him to court and be financially ruined by legal fees, or to accept lower payments that often ruin their businesses anyway. In a phone interview on Fox News, Trump said Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, was involved in the JFK assassination and further asserted that the National Enquirer (whose publisher is a close Trump friend) was a reliable source of news–then repeated the assertions, on camera, several months later. Finally, Trump’s record of public lying is so blatant it’s hard to know which of the many sources to site for it. Two should suffice. Politifact rates just 15% of his statements as true or mostly true, and a whopping 70% as mostly or completely false. This article documents fifteen hours of Trump’s lies. But maybe it’s all just political mud-slinging.
These are matters of public record. Some are things of which Trump has boasted. You can read them in his book. Many of them you can hear Trump say in recordings and videos. How could campaign mudslinging depict Trump’s character in any worse light than all of this? If a political hack for the Democratic Party wanted to make Trump look worse than he really is, what else could he say?
Grudem’s second argument is that Trump’s character is “far better than his opponent’s character.” At this point, how are we going to know a thing like that? If someone has no integrity, no principles, and no morals at all, how can you tell if another person has even less integrity, principles, and morals?
But in this case, the argument is especially unfortunate for Grudem since Trump heartily and actively supported Hillary Clinton throughout virtually her entire public career up until Trump began angling to run for president. In 2007 he said Hillary was terrific and said he might support her run for president. In 2008 he said she’d “make a great president.”
In 2012 he again said she was “terrific” and had done a good job as secretary of state. He told Fox News, “Hillary Clinton I think is a terrific woman. . . . I have known her for years. I really like her and her husband both a lot. . . . I think she really works hard and I think she does a good job. . . She’s a really good person.” So Trump, whose character Grudem believes to be “far better than” Hillary’s, said Hillary is “a really good person,” and said this near the end of her tenure as secretary of state. It’s doubtful that Hillary has changed much since then. Furthermore, Trump and his son Donald Jr. donated to Hillary in 2002, 2005, 2006, and 2007.
In his third argument Grudem asserts that character is not as important as some have claimed and then follows it up with a straightforward appeal to pragmatism. Making Trump’s appalling character a deal-breaker that rules out voting for him is, Grudem maintains, reductionism–“the mistake of reducing every argument to only one factor, when the situation requires that multiple factors be considered.”
I’ll grant that Trump’s character is one factor. But let me illustrate how I think it works. Suppose I told you I would give you an amount of money equal to three thousand dollars times an unknown factor between zero and one. That would be pretty good, wouldn’t it? If the unknown factor–let’s call it C–turned out to be 0.5, then I’d be giving you one thousand five hundred dollars ($3,000 x 0.5 = $1,500). Not bad. But what if the C factor turned out to be 0.005? Then I’d only be giving you $15. Well, that’s better than nothing, you might say, but it would still be a disappointment. And now, suppose C turned out to be zero. You’d get nothing at all. That would be a big disappointment, especially if you had sold your soul to get it.
Yes, Trump’s character is a factor in a figurative multiplication problem that tells us what good we can expect him to do. Take the sum total of all the good things he says he will do (which, as I intend to show in a future post, is not nearly as much as Grudem claims) and that’s one factor. The other factor is C, his character. His character tells us how many of his promises we can expect him to keep. I believe I’ve demonstrated that when it comes to telling the truth and keeping his word, Trump’s character is a zero. In fact, unlike the illustration I used above, in the real equation of a Trump presidency, his character could be a negative number. He could not only fail to do good but actually do evil. In fact, I think it’s probable.
This consideration undercuts the final, pragmatic point of Grudem’s third argument, namely, that we should consider “the future of the nation that would flow from a Clinton or a Trump presidency.” Since both Clinton and Trump are persons of exceptionally low character and are completely lacking in integrity, we can expect bad results to flow from a presidency of either one. We may not be able to calculate which will actually be worse, but we can readily see, if we’ll face it squarely, that neither is an acceptable choice.