This week, FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe – a man who certainly should have stepped down months ago – finally resigned from his active role at the agency. McCabe had been under President Trump’s fire for months given his failure to recuse himself from the Hillary Clinton email investigation despite his wife having received nearly $700,000 in campaign donations from Clinton associates during her failed Virginia state senatorial race.
Shortly after his resignation hit the headlines, another story broke from NBC News: The day after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, Trump was astonished and angered to learn that Comey had been offered a flight home on an FBI airplane. He allegedly called up McCabe and reamed him for allowing it. When McCabe dissented from Trump’s diatribe, Trump told McCabe that he ought to “ask his wife how it feels to be a loser,” apparently referring to her election loss.
This is, to put it mildly, gross.
But Trump isn’t exactly shy about his grossness. “Loser” is one of his favorite terms of art. Among other recipients of that accolade are Mark Cuban, George Will, former White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, actor Richard Belzer, Scottish farmer Michael Forbes, Glenfiddich scotch whiskey and the GOP as a whole. The list goes on.
All of this has been brushed off by conservatives. After all, Trump is providing some of the most conservative policy of the last half-century. Not only has he signed a massive tax cut into law but he has also slashed regulations, repealed the individual mandate, nominated conservative judges, moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, supported the anti-Iranian alliance in the Middle East and moved to box in Russia. He has presided over massive economic growth at home and the collapse of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
Trump’s list of accomplishments should seemingly answer a question with which conservatives have been struggling: Can a bad man make a good president? The answer, obviously, should be yes.
What’s more, the answer should have been obvious: Machiavelli suggested back in the 16th century that perhaps only a bad man can be a good politician. Machiavelli stated that virtue is an unrealistic and counterproductive standard for a statesman – what is needed is virtu , a capacity to use virtue and vice for the achievement of a specific end. Even Aristotle, a devotee of virtue, suggested that good citizens need not be good men.
All of which makes sense. Bad men make great artists. Bad men make great athletes. Saints often die in penury; sinners often die in riches.
But Trump’s list of accomplishments is only half the story. That’s because the office of the presidency is about more than mere accomplishments: It’s about modeling particular behavior. Bill Clinton was a successful president, but he was not a good one: He drove the country apart, degraded our political discourse and brought dishonor to the White House. The same was true for President Richard Nixon. Doing good things as president does not mean being a good president. Being a good president requires a certain element of character.
And Trump’s character is still lacking. Perhaps in the end, conservatives should ignore Trump’s character defects and take the wins; I certainly cheer those wins. Perhaps in the end, Trump’s character will poison the wins themselves; we won’t know that for years. We do know, however, that if we believe the president has two roles – one as a policymaker, the other as a moral model – then President Trump can only be half-successful so long as he refuses to change himself.