To the long list of reasons why the media and pundits misjudged the political tidal wave that swept Donald Trump into the presidency, let me add this: Good character no longer counts.
Yes, we — and here I include the Forward — did not appreciate deeply enough how the forces of globalization and economic dislocation have eaten away at communities beyond our sight line, leaving a large swath of voters stymied by social dysfunction and furious at the status quo.
Too many of us who write about American life do live in a bubble. Actually, most Americans live in a bubble of some sort or another, but it’s the job of journalists to break through it, to go beyond our comfort zone, to stay behind and talk to real folks after the campaign bus departs, to be skeptical of polls and establishment prognostications.
There, we fell short.
But we cannot be blamed entirely for another, less acknowledged factor in this shape-shifting presidential campaign: Behavior in a candidate that not long ago was thought to be disqualifying no longer is.
Note that I said behavior, and not policies or political stands. What is deemed an acceptable policy is naturally going to shift over time in a fluid democracy. To my knowledge, no presidential nominee before Trump proposed building a wall to halt immigration from Mexico, a radical idea that struck many people as both offensive and ridiculous. But I can imagine a Trump supporter arguing that desperate times call for desperate measures, and “build a wall” could be seen as 2016’s version of “stop the war” or “drill, baby, drill.”
That’s a debate over immigration policy. We should debate immigration policy.
You can repeat this exercise with many of Trump’s promises. Even if you think they were outlandish or unconstitutional, they were legitimate things to debate during a presidential campaign. And if journalists missed their popularity among Americans who aren’t on our Facebook feeds — well, that is a flaw in our reporting that can and should be addressed.
Character, however, transcends these sorts of policy differences. We judge character in a presidential candidate to ascertain how he or she will act once in office, and because the occupant of the Oval Office serves as a role model for our children, for our nation and for the world.
By every objective measure, Trump failed the character test.
He lied profligately. For just one piece of proof, the non-partisan Pulitzer-Prize-winning site PolitiFact evaluated the candidate’s statements and placed them in six categories, ranging from true to “pants on fire” false. Nearly half of Hillary Clinton’s statements (49%) were true or mostly true. For Trump, the proportion was 15%. Pants on fire? Clinton, 2%. Trump, 17%
He cruelly belittled political opponents, the disabled, veterans, Gold Star families, women he didn’t think were pretty enough, journalists who dared to write a skeptical story, refugees from war-torn Syria. You must know the list by now. The New York Times compiled the 282 peoples, places and things Trump insulted on Twitter. It took up two whole pages of the broadsheet edition, and there were still two weeks of campaigning left.
Trump stiffed employees and contractors, cheated on his first wife with his second, threatened not to accept the outcome of the election if Clinton won and threatened to jail her if she lost.
The basic character traits that once were prized in American leadership, even if there were too often honored in the breach — truthfulness, decency, fidelity, consistency, fairness — were uniformly discarded by this candidate. None of the old rules applied. No rules applied. He ignored four decades of bi-partisan precedent by refusing to release his tax returns and seemed to pay no political price whatsoever.
So forgive me if I thought that these behaviors as a whole — not a few indiscretions but a relentless stream — would disqualify Trump in the eyes of many voters. Had Barack Obama acted in any of these ways he would, at best, still be a community organizer in Chicago.
I hear the counter-arguments. Clinton, also, was not a paragon of virtue. She and her husband often acted as if the rules didn’t apply to them, either. But if she used her name and position to enrich herself, she also used it to further just and rightful causes. Her flaws — they were never crimes — were outweighed by decades of experience and work on behalf of the American people. Trump had none of that.
The other explanation is this: Life for white, working class Americans, men especially, has become so untenable that they were willing to overlook these character flaws to support a candidate who would help them in other ways. David Brooks, writing in Friday’s New York Times, argued this point: “If you were stuck in a jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electric bill, and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too.”
But those were not the voters who gave Trump the presidency. White born-again Christian evangelicals — 81% of them — helped him secure the keys to the White House. Many are middle class. They don’t all live in Appalachia. They used to talk proudly about family values and moral majorities. Those things evidently are not important anymore.
We in the media didn’t expect such a swell of support for Trump not only because we were too busy eating kale salad and drinking expensive coffee. We misjudged this vote because no one in memory like him had been elected president. Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, John McCain, Mitt Romney — none behaved like this on a personal level. For a combination of reasons — distrust and even hatred of Clinton; desire for change; party loyalty; resentment — the boundaries of acceptable behavior were discarded, with nothing left in their place.
Call me quaint, but I won’t apologize for believing that Americans still craved leaders who behave honorably. That’s not a blind spot. That’s a moral expectation.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.