The biggest worry about Donald Trump has always revolved around the question of temperament. Isn’t he just too thin-skinned? Too irritable? Too likely to strike out wildly when on the receiving end of a slight, real or imagined? Would you want to entrust someone whose temperament is on a hair-trigger, as Trump’s was said to be, with the awesome power of the U.S. military, including our nuclear codes?
That’s the rap, endlessly repeated by the (irony alert!) calm and even-keeled Hillary Clinton, echoed faithfully by battalions of Democratic operatives with bylines at CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
But is it true? I happened to be watching Trump’s rally in Reno last night when Secret Service agents rushed on stage — “Go, go!” — to grab him and, protecting his body with theirs, scurry him backstage after a protestor made what seemed to be a threatening move towards the stage.
A few minutes later, after the fellow had been removed from the arena, Trump strolled calmly back on stage. “Nobody ever said this was going to be easy for us, but we will never be stopped,” he observed. He then gave effusive thanks to the Secret Service and proceeded with his campaign talk. He was cool, calm, collected, almost nonchalant. Ten minutes later he was boarding his plane to fly to Denver to preside over his final rally of the day.
Trump’s appearance at Reno, by the way, was his third that day. Today he is scheduled to appear at five rallies, from Sioux City, Iowa, to Leesburg, Virginia. Tomorrow is even more demanding: he makes six stops, from Sarasota, Florida, to Manchester, New Hampshire, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Voters will determine whether his sole scheduled appearance on November 8 proceeds as billed at the New York Hilton: “Donald J. Trump Victory Party.”
I suspect it will. And I suspect that Hillary was wise to describe her November 8 colloquy as an “election night event” rather than a “victory party.”
“Oh, that’s just like Trump,” you say. “Typical braggadocio,” etc.
Yes, it is. It may also be sound psychology.
So let’s talk about temperament a bit. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the primary meaning of “temperament” is “the manner of thinking, behaving, or reacting characteristic of a specific individual.” It is interesting that “temperament,” in addition to being a neutral vessel waiting to be colored by a particular quality — we speak of someone having a nervous temperament, serene temperament, melancholy temperament, and so on — it can also, all by itself, suggest “excessive irritability or sensitiveness”: so-and-so, we caution, suffers from an abundance of temperament.
My sense, having observed Donald Trump since July 2015, is that his temperament has mellowed and matured these past fifteen months. Partly, perhaps, it is because he is following the direction of his aides and advisors, who have, we are told, urged him to “stay on message.”
But people tend to become the characters they emulate, which is one reason that habit is so important. “In a word,” as Aristotle observed, “our moral dispositions are formed as the result of the corresponding activities.” Accordingly, he notes, “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” To some extent, then, people are responsible for their characters, their temperament: “they acquire a particular quality,” said the philosopher, “by constantly acting in a particular way.”
With increasing diligence over the last several months, Donald Trump has added dollops of deliberateness to his drive, discipline, ambition, and sobriety. And by degrees (though not without some slippage) he has become more deliberate, more focused. His grueling campaign schedule tells us something about his temperament, his “characteristic manner of behaving.” It tells us that he is willing to work very hard and put himself out to deliver his message and achieve his goals.
And I believe that his behavior throughout the Secret Service eruption last night reveals something else about his temperament. It gave us a little window on how he behaves in an emergency. He didn’t fly off the handle. He issued no recriminations. He didn’t bluster. He did not cancel the event or skulk off fearfully. He took charge, calmly, proceeded with business, and delivered his message.
We do not know how Hillary Clinton would have behaved in an analogous situation. We know how she behaved when fabricating a story about coming under sniper fire in Bosnia, but that is different. We also know how she behaved as secretary of State when she deliberately circumvented security protocols by installing a private email server in her house from which she conducted the nation’s business. We know how she behaved after leaving office when she lied about whether there were classified documents on the server — there were — and when she destroyed documents and had her server professionally wiped afterreceiving a congressional subpoena. (Andy McCarthy lays out the whole sordid story here.)
In fact, we know quite a lot about Hillary Clinton’s temperament. We know, for example, that when our consulate in Benghazi came under attack and four Americans, including our ambassador to Libya, were killed by jihadists, she acknowledged to her daughter that the atrocity was an act of terrorism but stood next to the coffins of the fallen Americans and told their parents that the episode was sparked by a crude internet video. We also know that she was involved in having the maker of that video rounded up at midnight by brown-shirted agents and held without bail. We know, too, how Hillary and Bill Clinton used the Clinton Foundation as a sort financial entrepôt: money from supplicants seeking favors would flow into its coffers in exchange for face time with the Clintons which led to lucrative business deals or government contracts.
In short, I agree with those who say that temperament is a key issue in this election. Ten years ago, Donald Trump privately indulged (at least, he thought it was private) in lewd, locker-room banter with a pal. That privacy was violated by the Clinton campaign in an effort to smear their opponent. A few days ago, Hillary Clinton, unable to attract many people to her rallies by herself, offered free tickets to hear the filth-emitting rapper Jay Z and Beyoncé at a Pennsylvania event. Which is worse? Follow the link and read about the event. Ponder Jay Z’s “lyrics.” Think about the pictures of him with a smiling if slightly shell-shocked Hillary Clinton. What does it all say about her temperament?
It will be interesting to see how the Clinton campaign spinmeisters deal with last night’s episode in Reno. They should hope it does not receive wide coverage. For what it shows is a man acting with grace under pressure — acting, in a word, presidential. It was Trump’s third event of the day. It was already late by New York time. But then being president of the United States is a demanding job. The sudden eruption must have been scary. It turns out that the pro-Hillary protestor did not — contrary to the shouts of some audience members — have a gun. But neither the Secret Service nor Donald Trump knew that at the time. Trump responded to the crisis with aplomb. Would Hillary have given as good account of herself in a similar situation? I suppose there is room for disagreement about that. But when I cast my mind over Hillary Clinton’s legacy of mendacity, blame-shifting, and cover-ups, I conclude that to ask the question is to answer it. “Only an utterly senseless person,” said Aristotle, “can fail to recognize that our characters are the result of our conduct.” Take a look a Hillary Clinton’s conduct. Temperament will tell.