Character Flaws We Celebrate

The press treats self-promotion and combativeness like virtues. Why?

trumppp full.jpg

On his Twitter feed, Howard Kurtz writes, "You've gotta say this for Trump: He takes reporters' calls, doesn't hide behind flacks. He relishes the combat and never tires of promotion." I understand why journalists value candidates who make themselves available for questioning. Doing so can expose valuable information to the public. But I never understand why so many of my colleagues in the press celebrate the embrace of politics as war, or treat relentless self-promotion as if it's a boon.

Isn't it actually a character defect, even if it does cause someone to talk to journalists a bit more often?

Ponder this line again: "He relishes the combat and never tires of promotion." Aren't those things to be said against Trump? Wouldn't we prefer presidential candidates who see "combat" in politics as a necessary evil? Or better yet, candidates who forcefully engage journalists and their political opponents in substantive debate, but reject the "combat" metaphor as a lazy cliche that obscures more than it illuminates? After all, the end shouldn't be to destroy one another. 

In my profile of Gary Johnson, I illustrated his aversion to self-promotion. Isn't that character trait preferable to tireless self-promotion? In fact, wouldn't it be a bad thing if the president of the United States focused a large part of his energy on zealously promoting himself? What if political reporters lauded folks for putting more value in achieving an objective than in getting credit for it?

Perhaps we'd get marginally better candidates.  

I don't mean to pick on Kurtz, whose article length take on Trump makes none of these assertions. I'm interrogating a tweet here, and it probably doesn't capture any deep belief he harbors. (Perhaps the whole problem is that he used the word "combat" without actually thinking through what the metaphor implies.) It's noteworthy only because it is an instinct I see often in the political press. Let's stop treating political "combat" and self-promotion as if they're praiseworthy ends in themselves. The notion that politicians actually enjoy these things is one reason many of us find so many of them to have mixed up values.

Image credit: Joe Skipper/Reuters

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Politics

Just In