The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Voters know Trump isn’t just a bad president. He’s a bad person.

President Trump after his return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 5. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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A group calling itself Republican Voters Against Trump released a powerful video this week featuring an endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden by Michael Hayden, the retired Air Force general who headed the National Security Agency and the CIA under President George W. Bush.

The most bracing part of Hayden’s message comes at the end. “I absolutely disagree with some of Biden’s policies, but that’s not important,” he says. “Biden is a good man. Donald Trump is not.”

That one, jolting line gets to the bedrock issue of the 2020 campaign — and why the electorate now seems poised to reject an incumbent president for the first time in 28 years.

It’s not that Trump and Biden don’t have ideological differences that matter; they do. Biden’s embrace of tolerance, of climate science, of federally guaranteed health care and American engagement in the world — all of that contrasts sharply with Trumpism.

It’s not that there isn’t an argument to be had about basic competence, either — especially after the gross mishandling of a pandemic that Trump once grimly predicted might claim 60,000 American lives, and that is well on its way to taking four times that many.

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But the candidates’ specific policy differences don’t seem as defining as they might have in past elections. Because underlying all of it is the disconcerting sense, at least among a majority of the electorate, that Trump isn’t simply a bad president.

He’s just bad, period.

The numbers are pretty sobering, if you really need them. Trump’s favorability rating in the recent WSJ/NBC News poll was a stunning 39 percent. Fully 55 percent of the electorate judges him unfavorably as a person, before they even get to the job performance.

By contrast, at this point in 2012, when he was running for reelection, Barack Obama was judged positively by a majority of voters in most polls — and in virtually all of them, his favorability rating outpaced his unfavorable number by several points. Biden’s numbers are just fine; he’s viewed favorably by 43 percent of the public and unfavorably by 41 percent.

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We’re really not accustomed to asking basic questions about a president’s essential decency. The United States has had presidents whom history judges as deficient in character, for one reason or another — Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton.

But these were statesmen whose obvious failings as people had to be judged against their equally obvious devotion to country and desire to do good in the world.

That’s how they’re remembered even now — as well-intentioned and tragically flawed. Recent biographies of Nixon, the most reviled president of the 20th century, portray him as haunted and pathetic, but not inhumane.

Trump is singular in this way. In 2016, a majority of voters surmised he might not have the right temperament for the job. But some critical segment of voters distrusted his opponent even more, and they might have thought that Trump would at least grow in office. It was the same delusion that beguiled many of those who went to work for him — that somehow Trump could be improved and transformed.

But you know, to put this in dating terms, you don’t marry the person you hope your partner might become. You marry who you marry, and you deal with the consequences.

And so here we are, nearly four years later, and the electorate seems to have reached a consensus that Trump is the first truly bad person to have occupied the office in memory.

Time and again, almost inexplicably, he fails to summon a modicum of evident decency or compassion — a curious trait that was sharply underscored last week by his apparent willingness to expose everyone who serves him to a potentially lethal virus.

Four years of Trump’s Caligula act have made this much painfully clear: If you were drowning alone in a lake, this president is pretty much the last guy you’d want on the dock.

To their credit, Biden and his advisers have understood all along that this was the only issue that really mattered. They’ve never allowed the campaign to veer off into standard arguments over left and right.

Biden has premised his campaign on a restoration of American goodness — an idea he nicely embodies, and one for which Trump, a channeler of fear of rage, has no answer.

Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were turned out of office after one term for mismanaging crises. We talk about them now as worthy public servants who failed to meet the moment.

It’s an admiration that Trump will never be afforded. History, like the voters, will judge him graceless and unfeeling.

We might have guessed it four years ago. We know it now.

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