Stop any Democrat on the street these days and ask them about the most important quality they look for in a president, and you will hear about character. As Cara, a Democrat from South Carolina, explains to me, “Our president needs to be an example of America’s best values — to us and to the rest of the world.” When it comes to how they assess a president, 95 percent of the Democrats in my panel of 500 voters rate “character and integrity” a 10 on a ten-point scale.
It has been more than 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. talked about his dream that one day his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Looking back from the perspective of over half a century, do we know what that quality actually is and how much it matters?
Cathy, from Massachusetts, thinks it is clearly evident that President Trump’s character is a problem. “This is the first president in my memory who has operated without a shred of decency, with no guiding principle other than greed and self-interest,” she says. Most Democrats I speak with have similar sentiments.
There are Republicans in my sample who feel the same way. Peter, from Illinois, voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney for president, but wrote in John Kasich’s name in 2016, mostly because of what he saw as Trump’s defective character. “Our president is a petty, narcissistic, loathsome, sociopathic excuse for a human being,” he tells me.
Here’s the rub. Last week I also asked Trump voters to rate how important character and integrity are for a president. After two-and-a-half years of conversations with these voters, my expectation was that character would be a “nice to have,” and certainly not as important to Trump’s base as the progress they believe he has made on their key issues, such as the economy. However, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 signifying “extremely important,” the average for the group was 8.25, and many of Trump’s most ardent supporters rated this quality a 10. They see character and integrity as critical. What’s going on here?
“You can judge character in many ways,” says Susan, a Republican from Ohio who supports the president. Like many Trump fans, she is not happy with the president’s behavior, but she believes that he is dealing with a swampy, corrupt federal government. “He’s bold and unorthodox and courageous in his methods and I frankly love it. It’s high time DC was awakened,” she stated. Brenda from Pennsylvania agrees. “This is a man who is totally committed to what he believes in”, she tells me. “Even in the face of constant opposition from the media and from the Democrats, he forges ahead, and I admire that quality.” Jim, a Trump enthusiast from Nebraska, invokes Maya Angelou when talking about Trump’s character: You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. Time and again, Trump supporters rate their president high on integrity because they believe he does what he says he is going to do.
Trump supporters also say they have no alternative. Some believe that the president is no worse than many other past occupants of the White House, and they ultimately voted for him because, as Cynthia from Massachusetts declares, “Hillary Clinton was certainly not the beacon of character and integrity, so what were we to do?”
So, while character and integrity to these voters is important, it is more nuanced, and it is relative. If an alternative candidate has good character but is a socialist, they will vote for Trump. If a new candidate has good character but believes in open borders or third-trimester abortion, they will vote for the reelection of the president.
Robert, a Republican from New York, offers his “Christian view” that the measure of character is whether the person strives to remain without sin. “The president represents all of us . . . and other nations must be able to take us at our word without a moment of doubt.” Although he believes character is a vitally important quality, he sees no one in the government today meeting that standard.
As we listen to the 23 Democratic candidates for president talk about why they are running, it’s striking that most talk about our moment in history: that defeating Donald Trump, a man of terrible character, is a national imperative. The stakes seem higher with the publishing of the Mueller report, in that most Democrats believe the conclusions dig an even deeper hole when it comes to the president’s integrity.
The message from my panel, however, is clear: the “bad character” message is insufficient for a Democratic win in 2020. This is especially important as we look at the president’s approval ratings, which are hovering in the low 40 percent range. If what voters tell me is true, low approval numbers won’t necessarily translate into a vote against Trump in 2020; we can imagine voters who disapprove of the president’s lies, tweets, or his name calling, but who will still cast their vote for him because they have a different definition of character and integrity. (And moreover, of the 500 voters I surveyed, only nine report having read the Mueller report.)
Jane Eyre, the heroine of the famous Charlotte Bronte novel, stated, “I am not an angel, and I will not be one ’til I die”, and we cheered as she said it. Trump may be no angel, but in 2020, disapproving Americans just might vote for him anyway.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.