The age of Trump suggests the importance of a different definition of character: the capacity for restraint. In an office that contains such enormous power, and where that power expands in moments of emergency, the ability to demonstrate restraint is essential. It favors the public good over politics; truth over the quick lie.
Yet here is the problem: We don’t talk about restraint much in campaigns these days. When we do, we treat it as a liability and reward its absence. The unfortunate results are evident.
The conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson said character was composed of two qualities: “empathy and self-control.” Wilson defined empathy as “willingness to take importantly into account the rights, needs, and feelings of others,” and self-control as “willingness to take importantly into account the more distant consequences of present actions.” Both qualities are built on restraint — the ability to put public over self, and future over present.
The presidency, too, was built on restraint. As the framers designed the office in the summer of 1787, they picked George Washington to preside. He was chosen not because of his military skill or his speech-making (he said very little) but for his restraint, a trait the Founders hoped would contain the inevitable temptations toward monarchy in an office they were creating to take action. When an incredulous King George III heard Washington planned to return to Mount Vernon after leading the continental army, the monarch reportedly said: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” And, of course, Washington’s decision not to seek a third term set a precedent for presidential restraint for years to come.
In recent years, the situation has flipped: Restraint has become more deficit than virtue. In campaigns devoted to ever-larger promises of action, displays of personal ambition offer proof of presidential fitness. Richard Ben Cramer wrote compellingly of “what it takes” to win, his account of the 1988 campaign in which George H.W. Bush won by making first-generation immigrant Michael Dukakis seem un-American. The race was so brutal, Bush’s strategist Lee Atwater repented on his deathbed.
In 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump escalated this tradition. He denigrated John McCain and all POWs; mocked a disabled reporter; savaged Jeb Bush by suggesting his brother had lied his way to war and should be impeached; and suggested that the father of another rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), was implicated in the John F. Kennedy assassination.
In office, previous presidents (such as George H.W. Bush) recognized a distinction between no-holds-barred campaign tactics and the restraint traditionally associated with governing. Trump has not — confronting allies, accommodating adversaries, insulting Cabinet members and treating the truth as optional. Supporters applaud all of this as the disruptive action they voted for.
The capacity for restraint — or lack thereof — has come into focus as Trump confronts perhaps the two biggest crises of his presidency: the pandemic and the uproar over the killing of George Floyd.
In responding to covid-19, restraint was not in order. Indeed, the tardy federal response doomed America to its awful global ranking. Where restraint was needed, however, was in the ability to consider Wilson’s “distant consequences.” That is the quality that causes leaders to pause from the day-trading of the political cycle and take the threat of pandemics, cyberattacks or economic collapse seriously — before they hit. It is the capacity to design, and stick with, a lockdown that is painful but necessary.
In Trump’s response to Floyd’s death and the consequent eruption of protests, he had a chance to show restraint. It was an opportunity for a president to play not to his base but instead, in Wilson’s words, take “importantly into account the rights, needs and feelings” of black Americans. It was the president’s moment, if he took it, to answer meaningfully on behalf of a nation dedicated to equality, as the one official who represents the entire nation. Instead, Trump swept aside the protesters at Lafayette Square and marched to St. John’s Episcopal Church to show strength. He used his official platform to spread lies about a 75-year-old protester hospitalized after being shoved to the ground by police, and boasted that he had done more for blacks than any other president except, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln.
The 2020 election must revolve around action. The economy is crushed, the country faces an opportunity for racial reconciliation, and covid-19 will persist past Election Day. The electorate will be hungry for answers, increasing the penchant to overlook the importance of restraint. But restraint is not the opposite of action — it is what shapes action and gives it meaning. It’s what gives a presidency character.