Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Theodore Roosevelt noted: “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”
As the dual crises of indictments and potential nuclear war swirl around the White House I think that it is important to see the President’s words and actions in light of a number of factors. One of those, as Theodore Roosevelt noted is character. Thus it is important to know how the character other leaders at other times influenced how they treated people, reacted to criticism, and led their nations.
In the American experience one is hard pressed to find a President with a similar temperament and character that corresponds to Donald Trump. Yes, Nixon had some similarities, Jackson as well, but both men even at their worst did, at least in public restrain themselves and Nixon, when confronted with the reality of certain impeachment did the country a favor by resigning.
But that was a different time. There were leaders in the Republican Party who chose to honor the Constitution and their oaths over blind party loyalty or their determination to pass a certain legislative act. Their resistance to President Nixon was instrumental in his resignation in 1974. But there seem to be few current members of the GOP congressional delegations willing to stand either for fear of the Trump base, or blind determination to press on with tax cuts even if it means the sacrifice of the Constitution, nuclear war, or their own integrity.
But I do think that there is a leader who in temperament was much like President Trump, who ended up helping to lead his nation and the world to the abyss of World War. That is not Adolf Hitler who many people often compare the President. I think that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his reliance on his radicalized base, including armed mobs in the street, and hyper-partisan allies in the right wing media, especially Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp which serves as his de-facto state media are similar, but they do not speak to the President’s unstable, narcissistic, and paranoid behaviors. I think that the better comparison is to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany with whom the President seems to share many similarities.
In his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark wrote of Wilhelm in words that are strikingly reminiscent of the President.
“It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations.”
‘I am the sole master of German policy,’ he remarked in a letter to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), ‘and my country must follow me wherever I go”
“Wilhelm frequently –especially in the early years of his reign –bypassed his responsible ministers by consulting with ‘favourites’, encouraged factional strife in order to undermine the unity of government, and expounded views that had not been cleared with the relevant ministers or were at odds with the prevailing policy.”
“It was in this last area –the unauthorized exposition of unsanctioned political views –that the Kaiser achieved the most hostile notice, both from contemporaries and from historians. There can be no doubt about the bizarre tone and content of many of the Kaiser’s personal communications in telegrams, letters, marginal comments, conversations, interviews and speeches on foreign and domestic political themes. Their exceptional volume alone is remarkable: the Kaiser spoke, wrote, telegraphed, scribbled and ranted more or less continuously during the thirty years of his reign, and a huge portion of these articulations was recorded and preserved for posterity…”
Max Hastings wrote that Wilhelm “was a brittle personality whose yearning for respect caused him to intersperse blandishments and threats in ill-judged succession.” Sean McMeekin in his book July 1914 wrote that Wilhelm had an “insecurity complex, a need for constant attention and acclaim. As one of his many critics put it, the kaiser needed to be “the stag at every hunt, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” He also noted “Eager for praise, taking offense at the merest slight, the kaiser was a difficult man to work for. Bismarck had disdained to gratify Wilhelm II’s fragile ego after he became emperor in 1888, which led to his sacking two years later.”
Like President Trump the Kaiser did experience some push back from different governmental ministers, and was somewhat restrained during the month leading up to the war, but his constant belligerence, instability, and unscripted remarks helped set the diplomatic and governmental crisis that led to the war. Of course this was not his fault alone, the Austrian-Hungarians, Serbians, Russians, French, and British all had a hand, but the Kaiser, through his words and actions during the three decades preceding the war bears much responsibility for what happened in 1914. If the Kaiser had had a Twitter account he would have certainly used it in a similar manner to President Trump.
But Germany had no checks and balances to restrain Wilhelm. He was an absolute monarch. Americans do still have institutional checks and balances to Presidential overreach or abuses should we choose to follow the Constitution, but for that to happen the leadership of the Republican Party must also act, as did their predecessors during the Nixon administration to put principle or party, and rule of law over blind obedience. This is not about partisanship; it is about the Constitution, our form of government, and yes, even the prevention of nuclear war.
Character and temperament are very important in times of crisis and elevated tensions. Character is also fate. We should all tremble when we think of the lack of character and maturity shown by our President.