Donald Trump’s campaign continues its spiral downward with the release of a video showing him speaking of women in lewd and vulgar terms and himself as a sort of sexual conqueror. As a person interested in virtue ethics, I found myself putting the theory to the test with Trump’s statement and subsequent apology.
First, virtue ethics is an ethical approach that values an agent’s character over rules and duties (deontological ethics) or consequences (consequential ethics). A virtue approach to ethics is ideal during an election because it doesn’t allow any particular action or issue to usurp one’s support of a candidate. If we felt like we needed to withdraw support from a candidate every time they misstep and violated a duty or promoted a policy that would potentially lead to more negative consequences than positive, it would be impossible to ever find a candidate to vote for. Plus, as I mentioned last week, the social tradition of the Church lends support to examining a candidate’s character over any particular action or issue:
“Those with political responsibilities must not forget or underestimate the moral dimension of political representation, which consists in the commitment to share fully in the destiny of the people and to seek solutions to social problems. In this perspective, responsible authority also means authority exercised with those virtues that make it possible to put power into practice as service (patience, modesty, moderation, charity, efforts to share), an authority exercised by persons who are able to accept the common good, and not prestige or the gaining of personal advantages, as the true goal of their work.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 410).
So, how do we evaluate Trump’s character in light of this video? This video is one of many instances of Trump’s demeaning stance towards women. It is not an isolated incident or an aberration in an otherwise exemplary character. This makes it especially disturbing. While Trump might want to dismiss its contents based on the fact that the incident occurred over ten years ago, that is not most important to a virtue ethicist. Most important is that it, in light of the many other disparaging remarks he has made against women, reveals a character of a man who does not respect women, and may even be habitually disposed towards forms of violence against them.
Another disturbing revelation about the video pertains to how those closest to Trump reacted. His wife Melania released a statement saying “The words my husband used are unacceptable and offensive to me. This does not represent the man that I know.” His son-in-law Jared Kushner was skeptical of the very existence of the video, saying the comments did not sound like Trump. If we are willing to take these two people at their words, that these comments don’t reflect the Trump they know, then we have to accept that Donal Trump is deceptive, that he puts on a different persona around different people. Some tried to excuse his remarks as “locker room braggadocio” but this is far from an excuse. It shows a Trump who is willing to play by immoral rules in order to fit into a vicious culture. This makes his character, even under the best circumstances, impossible to judge for the ordinary voter. What he is, habitually, is at the very least deceptive.
Trump’s own response also reflects negatively on his character. “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.” This again reflects the deceptiveness in his character. Either he is deceiving other people and us about who he is, or he is the kind of person that makes disparaging and violent comments about women just to be cool, or to fit in with others who find such comments funny.
But then Trump went on to say, “I pledge to be a better man tomorrow and will never, ever let you down.” Trumps apology fails not only to acknowledge the severity of the problem of a culture of sexual assault that he both participates in and perpetuates, but it also makes a grandiose, unrealistic promise to never fail again. Trumps entire campaign has been a grandiose promise, an endless brag about how great Trump thinks he is. He has said “Only I can fix it!” Rather than revealing a character that is humbled by his errors and actually anxious to change, Trump once again emphasized his “tremendous” sense of self. He can apparently promise in good faith to never fail again. This is a character that is both immodest and rash. A more thoughtful apology should address the systemic violence against women that his comments reflect, a sense of regret and awareness of the damage these comments cause for his own party, and his willingness to work with Republican leadership to respond to these comments in such a way that best serves the needs of the party and the American people.
Finally, Donald Trump promised to not step down and failed also to acknowledge the increasing numbers of Republican leaders who are withdrawing their support and endorsement. Even VP candidate Mike Pence has distanced himself from Mr. Trump. Trump’s exalted sense of his own self seems to blind him to the good of the party. Trump’s character has divided his own party. Were he elected, we could only expect his character would continue to divide the country.
Among the political character traits the Compendium specifically cites, patience, modesty, moderation, charity, efforts to share Trump does not appear to illuminate any of them, but this most recent scandal seems to cement a character that is precisely the opposite: rash, conceited, excessive, violent and mean, and concerned primarily with his own good and not the common good. This is not the sort of public leader this country needs.