Browsing channels the other day, I landed on some police drama (Law and Order? Blue Bloods?) that focused on a “fight club” atmosphere in the world of high finance and hedge funds. The trope is a familiar and common one: the high-testosterone machismo atmosphere, the “big swinging dick” mentality, the fierce competitiveness, the meathead/frat-boy behavior. It’s routinely denigrated by pop culture, and it’s a favorite example of “toxic masculinity,” but that doesn’t mean it’s rare/outlier behavior. Tropes and stereotypes are usually born of some reality, and the moral quality or lack thereof is irrelevant.

This behavior and mindset is not limited to the realm of finance, not by a long shot. There are many fields and professions that attract alpha- and competitive types, types that are drawn to power and its trappings. Politics is certainly one such, and while the starry-eyed idealists, the young, the naive, and the stubbornly, willfully blind want to imagine “statesmen” who rise above crude and base impulses, history makes it abundantly clear that this is rarely (if ever) the case.

This point was reinforced by a recent Victor Davis Hanson column at National Review that attempted, for the umpteen millionth time, to explain both Trump’s victory and continued popularity.

Nestled therein was a laundry list of unpleasant (from a moralistic perspective) truths about many of our great (and sacred to many) statesmen, presidents included.

The White House has been populated by a long string of (alleged) philanderers, including Harding, Kennedy, FDR, Jefferson, Eisenhower, Clinton, Ford, Bush, Sr., and Cleveland. Behind closed doors, many of our presidents have been a far cry from presidential. LBJ apparently had a huge “johnson” and loved to alpha-male others by showing it off. He also reportedly would conduct business while sitting on the toilet, with staffers in attendance. Herbert Hoover insisted that the (mostly minority) White House staff always be out of physical sight, meaning they had to dive for cover when he’d walk by. Andrew Jackson alpha-maled a Christmas party by inviting a bevy of prostitutes, just to make everyone there uncomfortable.

Scandals born of personal moral bankruptcy, beyond lust and adultery, have rocked many presidencies. Nixon had Watergate. LBJ had the Pentagon Papers. FDR attempted to alpha-male the Supreme Court with threats of packing it with sycophants. Harding had the Teapot Dome scandal. Taft had the Ballinger controversy. Teddy Roosevelt instigated a revolution in Panama. Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt were racists (as were, arguably, a great many others, including Lincoln) and eugenicists. FDR was a homophobe. John Adams had a raging and explosive temper, as did Andrew Jackson.

Many Presidents have been vulgar and boorish, saved from historical opprobrium only by time and the lack of today’s social media. Many have also been hugely narcissistic. If this sounds remarkably like the stereotypical behavior of hedgies, other finance types, big shot lawyers, alpha-dog surgeons, professional athletes, and so forth, it is. It’s also not unique to America. All this and more can be found in the history of other nations, and some of the biggest names in world politics have been less-than-saintly characters.

Achieving the Presidency is an act of will, born of a craving for power. Yes, there have been some Presidents who’ve landed in the White House somewhat more accidentally or serendipitously, and some who’ve pursued that lofty office for “purer” purposes than most, but power attracts certain personalities, and the United States Presidency is without a doubt the most powerful position on the planet.

Many make the mistake of conflating the lust for power with a desire to do evil. While power certainly corrupts, evil is not the goal that power-seekers set out for. Indeed, many see power as a means of better effecting their ideas and ideals – they set out to do good, and know that they need power for that aim. And, indeed, many of our Presidents have accomplished good things even as they behaved in unsavory or barbaric ways. Certainly, uprightness of character would be preferred, but history suggests those of the most upright character have less, on average, of what it takes to achieve the Presidency. Even more so, those who’ve occupied that space who haven’t been louts haven’t necessarily been the best Presidents.

This is a bit of a tricky matter, because “best,” in this case, is certainly eye-of-the-beholder stuff. Ask a progressive to pick his favorite president, and you’re likely to hear FDR or Wilson. Both were truly transformative presidents, but ask a conservative or libertarian, and you’ll hear them listed among the worst presidents in our history. LBJ, as I noted herein, was a real piece of work, but his legacy from a progressive angle is the “Great Society.” Again, depending on your political leanings, the Great Society programs are hugely important or hugely destructive. That doesn’t mean there’s no objective truth, but the matter at hand is perception of an individual, rather than assessment of his policies. As Hanson pointed out in his column, personal integrity and presidential achievement do not really correlate.

So, what’s the point of all this? Clearly, all this is a prelude to discussing the churlishness of our current President. It’s very real, but is it as unique as his detractors believe? It certainly is the case that most of the loutish history of our previous Presidents wasn’t known to the public during their terms, and even today is treated mostly as historical footnote material. And, it’s quite arguable that his coarseness detracts from his popularity and his ability to pursue policy (although, the counterargument that the opposition party wouldn’t be more agreeable with a less confrontational President isn’t without merit, and the Scott Adams arguments that his style actually works shouldn’t be dismissed either). I certainly wish he behaved more… “presidential.”

But, I’m not going to get my wish. Barring some seismic revelation, he’s going to be President until at least January 2021, and possibly until January 2025. During that time, he’ll continue as he has, I’m sure, feeding the press an endless supply of vapors-inducing material, and making many of us cringe along the way. Then he’ll be gone, off to do that which former Presidents do. He’s unique in his own way, just as every big personality is unique, but a quick scan of history makes Trump look positively pedestrian compared to some past presidential perverts, and the Republic will survive his tenure.

Is this right? Shouldn’t we demand better? Shouldn’t we elevate personal decency to the top of Presidential requirements?

It’s reality, and it’s also reality that tribalism trumps decency. I refer you to the Joy Behar rule, one that, as history has demonstrated, applies to both sides of the political aisle. I suggest also, that there is a “hypocrisy vote” at play. Recent presidents’ improprieties – and their supporters’ tolerance of them – are an invitation for people outraged by them to abandon their own expectations of decorum in favor of the guy who promises to do the things they want, even if he’s a philistine. Bill Clinton was and continues to be lionized by the Left despite his predatory ways, and that certainly made the Left’s accusations re Trump ring very hollow to many Republicans’ ears. Obama was, by current accounts, an upright man, with little to show in the way of personal scandal. Yet, his actions (and tone! Lest we forget, he opened his tenure by telling the Republicans “I won” and running the nation in a purely partisan and exclusionary fashion) created the atmosphere that led to Trump’s victory (and we might even find out that his administration abetted Clinton’s ascension to the Democratic nomination).

Trump is coarse, and not remotely “presidential,” and unlike any previous President, but he’s not the outlier that many believe. If he continues to offend you to your core, I’ll expect you to vote for someone who exhibits none of the turpitude that so many past Presidents have. But, I expect that you may not have that much of a choice in that regard, especially if you embrace party loyalty as the means of seeing the policies you prefer enacted. So, don’t be surprised when you are disappointed by the next President’s personal failings. Or those of the one after. This isn’t a defense of presidential vileness. This is reality.

All this is why smaller government is better. If the power of the Presidency were less than it is, we’d have less to worry about the corrosiveness of that power, or about the coarsness-and-worse of those who seek it. The less ability someone has to affect your life, the less you’ll need to care about his personality. We can all wish for a Solomon or a Gandhi or a Washington to arise from the swamp, but we should resist investing power in such a person, because some day he’ll be gone, and his successor will have the same power, power we granted, and power that we will regret ceding.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


Like this post?