America’s Lowest Standard

Try to imagine anyone like Trump surviving in any other segment of our society—business, entertainment, sports, the military.

An illustration of a black-and-white photo of Donald Trump overlaid with three columns of horizontal red lines
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Alex Wong / Getty.

In one of his rare moments of naivete, Alexander Hamilton imagined that the Electoral College would afford “a moral certainty” that the office of the presidency would not “fall to the lot of any man, who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

He hoped that the electors would be a bulwark against men who had a talent “for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity.” “It will not be too strong to say,” Hamilton wrote in “Federalist No. 68,” “that there will be a constant probability of seeing [the presidency] filled by characters preeminent for ability and virtue.”

I think it’s not too strong to say that he was wrong.

As the E. Jean Carroll trial wraps up, I find myself reflecting on the fact that at least 26 women have accused Donald J. Trump of sexual assault or misconduct. Even in the era of #MeToo, the volume of charges is staggering. Carroll has accused Trump of rape. The other two dozen women have described various other forms of assault, abuse, and groping. (Trump has denied every allegation.)

There is, of course, a lot more evidence that suggests that Trump is not a character of preeminent virtue. The twice-impeached, defeated former president has been indicted on multiple felony charges and may face more. He is a chronic liar and fraudster. He also played a role in fomenting the January 6 insurrection. Trump has called for the suspension of the Constitution and dined with a white supremacist, and he traffics in racist invective and conspiracy theories.

And yet, Trump has already been elected to the presidency once and is now poised to seize his party’s nomination for a return to office. An NBC poll last month found that two-thirds of Republican voters stood behind Trump. Given the mathematics of the Electoral College in which Alexander Hamilton invested such high hopes, Trump has a good chance of winning the presidency again.

To put this in context: Try to imagine anyone like this surviving in any other segment of our society—business, entertainment, sports, the military, even politics. Just ask Harvey Weinstein, or any of the other moguls, executives, and celebrities who no longer have careers.

No publicly traded company would consider naming Trump to an executive position, or even to a position on its board. None of his billionaire friends would trust him with their money. Even in our debased political culture, the cascade of rape allegations and indictments would force Trump’s resignation as a senator, governor, or legislator.

Trump would not be allowed to own an NFL, NBA, or MLB team, and no one would even think of giving him a management job at a local Burger King. It’s impossible to imagine him being given any position of authority at any school or university in the United States.

Hamilton thought that he had fireproofed the presidency from mountebanks and charlatans because we would seek out only the best and the brightest among us. Instead, we have apparently saved our lowest standards for the presidency.

At this point, the Senate would be unlikely to confirm Trump’s appointment to any other position of trust. Someone with Trump’s character would not be granted a security clearance at any level of government. We wouldn’t let the man babysit our children or even walk the dog. We would definitely not buy a used car from the guy. But we might give him back the nuclear codes and control over the military, the FBI, the CIA, the IRS, and the Department of Justice. Americans might make him, once again, the face of America.

Before Trump, the occasional scoundrel made his way to the Oval Office. But the presidency itself remained part of the national mythology. Children learned about George Washington’s honesty and Abraham Lincoln’s decency, because these were the stories we told ourselves and the ideals we celebrated.

This was the contrast that I had in mind the one and only time I spoke with Trump. In 2016, he had been insulting the looks of the wife of one of his rivals. “I expect that from a 12-year-old bully on the playground,” I told him. “Not somebody who wants the office held by Abraham Lincoln.”

Back then, I thought that most conservatives would agree. Former Education Secretary William Bennett, the author of The Book of Virtues and one of the most prominent virtucrats of the right, had repeatedly emphasized the importance of the president as a role model.

“The President is the symbol of who the people of the United States are,” Bennett wrote. “He is the person who stands for us in the eyes of the world and the eyes of our children.”

But like other Republicans, Bennett reversed himself in 2016, saying that conservatives who object to Trump “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.”

In other words, the presidency was too important for voters to have moral or ethical standards for its occupant. We know the rest of the story, at least so far.

After the release of the Access Hollywood tape, the GOP decided that character did not, after all, matter. Seven years later, neither the indictments for paying hush money to a porn star nor the accusations of assault—and rape—are disqualifying for Republican voters. In the 2024 contest for the presidency, they hardly even register.