Personality or Ideology: Which matters most in a political leader?

by Emrys Westacott

In evaluating candidates for political office there are two main things to consider:

a) their ideology–that is, their political views and general philosophy

b) their personal qualities

With respect to ideology, the most important questions one should ask are these:

· Are their beliefs true? (Do they hold correct beliefs on, say, climate change, or on whether a particular policy will increase or reduce poverty, crime, unemployment, pollution, or the likelihood of war?)

· Do I share their values and ideals? (E.g. Are they willing to sacrifice economic growth for the sake of environmental protection (or vice versa)? Where do they stand on issues like gun control, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, foreign aid, gay rights, or economic inequality?)

· Whose interests do they represent? (Do they generally favor policies that benefit the rich, the middle class, the poor, employers or workers, corporations or consumers, cities or rural communities?)

Regarding personal qualities, the ones that matter most are:

· knowledge – Are they decently informed about the world and the issues they will be dealing with

· intelligence – Are they able to understand and think through complex problems

· wisdom – Are they reasonable? Do they exercise good judgment?

· effectiveness – Do they have the practical skills to realize their goals?

· integrity – Are they truthful? Is what they do consistent with what they say? Are they motivated by a concern for the public good rather than by self-interest?

These personal qualities obviously cannot be possessed absolutely but only to a greater or lesser degree. And they may often conflict. Most politicians who are effective sometimes have to compromise their integrity, and the first compromise is invariably made before they hold office. As the historian George Hopkins (emeritus professor at Western Illinois university) has observed, “all presidents lie for the simple reason that if they didn't, we wouldn't elect them.” A candidate who was perfectly truthful would be ineffective because they would probably never get the chance to implement any of their ideas.

Effective governance may also require leaders to lie, mislead, hide the truth, and break promises. Franklin Roosevelt was by any account a highly effective president; but in the two years prior to Pearl Harbor, he consistently told the American public that he was fully committed to keeping the US out of any foreign wars while simultaneously, and secretly, preparing the country for war against Japan and Germany. The political leaders we are most inclined to venerate are those like Lincoln or Mandela who, in addition to possessing the other qualities listed above, somehow mange to be practically effective with minimum loss of integrity.

Many people on both sides of the political spectrum downplay the importance of the personal in politics. Marxists, for instance, typically focus on the ideological outlook of political parties and candidates. From this perspective, paying attention to the personal–whether someone is a good parent, kind to animals, or someone you'd like to have a beer with–is to be distracted by irrelevancies. Obsessing over personal narratives is seen as one of the ways the media trivialize politics and deflect attention away from the substantive issues at stake. What really matters is the objective question: whose interests does a politician represent and serve?

On the right also, ideology often takes precedence. Consider the pledge made by all the presidential candidates in the Republican primary earlier this year: “I ­­­­­­_________ affirm that if I do not win the 2016 Republican nomination for president of the United States, I will endorse the 2016 Republican presidential nominee regardless of who it is.” (italics added) Back in March 2016, the eventual nominee could conceivably have been anyone. But better a white supremacist or a certifiable psychopath in the White House than someone who was not a Republican.

In normal circumstances, I, too, prioritize ideology over personal qualities when deciding whom to support. That's because most political candidates do cross a basic threshold when it comes to knowledge, wisdom, integrity, etc.. And once over this threshold, the differences are not usually great. For instance, in 2012, when Obama and Romney were competing for the US presidency, the important differences were ideological. Romney was a reasonably knowledgeable and intelligent person who had proved himself a capable administrator and was not glaringly corrupt. What separated him from Obama were their differences on matters like taxation, welfare, and the environment.

In the 2016 presidential election, however, things are not normal. To be sure, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump differ in their general political outlook. E.g. Trump, in accordance with the Republican platform, wants to abolish the estate tax–a measure that would materially benefit everyone with estates worth more than $5.4 million ($10.9 million for couples). Democrats, including Clinton, oppose this idea. But this time ideology has to take a back seat.

The reason is simple and, to my mind, obvious. Trump doesn't cross the basic threshold of acceptability when it comes to at least three of the five personal desiderata listed above: viz. knowledge, wisdom, and integrity.

I actually don't worry much about Trump's political philosophy. There are two reasons for this. First, he doesn't really have one. On many issues–e.g. nuclear proliferation; the minimum wage; the national debt–he's taken wildly different positions on different occasions, some of these occasions only minutes apart!. He basically says whatever he thinks will secure him some short term goal, such as winning the Republican primary, or, more commonly, getting lots of people clapping, cheering, and chanting his name. Second, his most notorious proposals–e.g. banning Muslims from entering the country, or returning to the gold standard–simply aren't going to happen in any possible universe.

But I do worry about Trump's obvious personal deficiencies because the power of the presidency makes such a person dangerous. Imagine, just for argument's sake, that sometime, somewhere, people in some benighted American state elected an ignorant, egotistical, mendacious, congressman to represent them in the House. How much damage could that individual do single-handedly? The answer is: not much. The presidency is different. Put simply, I'd sooner have a right wing ideologue as president than someone with a serius personality disorder.

There is a reason why Trump is so lacking in the personal qualities one would hope for in a political leader. He has a fairly severe mental problem. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) sets out a list of criteria for judging if someone has narcissistic personality disorder. Here are a few:

· having an exaggerated sense of self-importance

· exaggerating your achievements and talents

· believing that you are “special”

· requiring constant admiration

· being obsessed with fantasies of your success, fame, power, brilliance, sexual prowess, etc.

· having a sense of entitlement

· behaving in an arrogant manner

· taking advantage of others to get what you want

· lacking an empathetic understanding of how others feel

Psychiatrists are not supposed to diagnose people they haven't examined personally. But some have set that rule aside, either because they are so worried about the prospect of Trump gaining power, or because they think he's so clearly pathologically narcissistic that labeling him a narcissist is hardly a risky call. Indeed clinical psychologist George Simon, an authority on the manipulative personality, says that he uses videos of Trump to illustrate various symptoms of narcissism.

Some conservatives who find the Donald distasteful argue that Hilary Clinton's personal failings make her no better than Trump. But this is nonsense. On every count–knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, effectiveness, and integrity–Clinton is in a different league. Of course, when it comes to the last category, integrity, she is eminently criticizable for her opportunism, evasiveness, untruthfulness, and apparent cupidity. But against this one should also set her many years of public service and hard work on behalf of worthy causes. Relative to her peers, Clintons integrity score is disappointingly average. Trump's is off the chart–at the low end.

To their credit, a few Republicans, like Senators Lindsay Graham and Susan Collins, have publicly said that they will not support Trump. But the majority, even though one assumes they privately believe him unfit for office, either publicly endorse him or maintain a discrete silence. Their position is thoroughly reprehensible, a form of moral treason committed for selfish reasons. A person of Trump's stamp is, as a Washington Post editorial put it, “a threat to the Republic.” One can only hope that not only will Trump be handily defeated in November but also that his enablers in the Republican party will eventually suffer the shame their pusillanimity deserves.