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The difference between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump: (Or, compartmentalization is a good thing)

Conservative thinker Hadley Arkes doesn’t understand why #NeverTrump Republicans can’t just get on the bandwagon already. Don’t they know what’s at stake?

I can hardly blame the Bushes for recoiling from the indignities and insults, the lies and calumnies, thrown off with such abandon by Donald Trump. But accomplished public men are even more obliged than the rest of us to respect the difference, searing at times, between personal wounds and public duties. To take those duties seriously is to raise the question of why the Bushes and people like them do not care as much for the things that other Republicans, ordinary folk, see at stake in 2016:
  • the prospect that medical care will be politically managed at the national level, with an independent commission rationing care, bringing everyone under their control;
  • the specter of federal courts filled at all levels with the professoriate of the Left, ready to install as law those fevered theories that have now become the fashion at the “better” universities; and
  • the crushing effects of Dodd-Frank, creating vast costs in compliance and damping incentives for banks to invest in new businesses.

I won’t argue with Arkes’ assessment of the issues. If you’re conservative, this must indeed be what the election of Hillary Clinton looks like.

But Arkes is mistaken, I think, in how he understands the stuffy refusal of people like the Bushes or Paul Ryan to give Donald Trump their full-throated support. In his telling, Trump is basically Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack” — gauche, “flawed,” but, in the end, one of the good guys.

The idea, hinted at more than a few times, is that Trump might end up like Bill Clinton — who was personally gross, perhaps even criminal, but who also happened to be (by many accounts) a pretty effective president in spite of his personal foibles.

Here’s the thing — and it’s why, I think, some #NeverTrump Republicans won’t just concede the point: Bill Clinton managed to be a reasonably effective in spite of his personal foibles because he understood and observed the line between “personal” and “public” to a degree that Donald Trump cannot fathom.

During Clinton’s impeachment, this trait was known as “compartmentalization,” and it was generally discussed pejoratively. As one writer put it: "Bill Clinton famously compartmentalized his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, convincing himself his relations with her were neither sexual nor related to his performance as president. He did not convince much of the country."

Well, he was found “not guilty” at the impeachment trial. More importantly, this seems to be model for what Trump’s advocates believe he can be as president.

But there’s very little in Trump’s history, or in his campaigning, to suggest he’s capable of such line-drawing. His whole career has been about stamping the “Trump” name on an endless array of products — real estate, in particular, but also steaks and wine and ties — so that the distinction between Trump the person and “Trump” the brand grew very blurry indeed.

As far as the campaign, I keep coming back to the third presidential debate, where Hillary Clinton and Trump were both asked how they’d make Supreme Court appointments. Here’s how Trump opened his answer:

Trump: Well, first of all, it’s so great to be with you and thank you, everybody. The Supreme Court, it is what it is all about. Our country is so, so, it is just so imperative that we have the right justices. Something happened recently where Justice Ginsburg made some very inappropriate statements toward me and toward a tremendous number of people. Many, many millions of people that I represent and she was forced to apologize. And apologize she did. But these were statements that should never, ever have been made. We need a Supreme Court that in my opinion is going to uphold the second amendment and all amendments, but the second amendment which is under absolute siege.

Observe: Trump processes a key policy question in terms of how he, personally, has been aggrieved by a member of the Supreme Court before he can start to get to the issue itself.

Let’s not forget Trump’s appearance at Gettysburg, where he spent 13 minutes griping about the women who have made groping allegations against him before getting down to the business, supposedly, of the day: Unveiling his agenda for the first 100 days in office.

Can Trump separate his personal issues from the job he’d be required to do as president? The evidence says “no.” He is not a compartmentalizer.

In this, he resembles not Bill Clinton, but Richard Nixon, whose dark resentments so occupied him that he self-destructed his way out of power, having lost the confidence of the country and even of the Republican Party that was supposed to have his back.

I’m not conservative. I’m not a Republican. I was never going to be somebody who might vote for Donald Trump. But Trump’s temperament is why, even if you’re 100 percent on board with his policy prescriptions, you should be hesitant to lend your support to his candidacy. He’s not simply a flawed man who will do the business of the American people; he is a flawed man who, it seems likely, will make those flaws the business of the American people.

Not all flaws are equal, it turns out. And the presidency is bigger than policy outcomes.

If you have lousy character and want to be president, you’d best be a compartmentalizer. Trump’s not. It’s why #NeverTrump Republicans are correct to withhold their support.


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