Jonah Goldberg: The Inability to Do the Basic Homework to be President Reflects a Lack of Character and Patriotism -- in Trump and Others
Editor’s Note: The following essay was adapted from an interview with Jonah Goldberg conducted in October 2016. It has been modified for clarity.
The question of disqualifying defects is sort of like pornography: You know it when you see it.
We can do explore the question of defect by starting with the easiest obvious issues, and then working backwards, sort of like the way we think about abortion. We say, “Well, if a healthy baby is wholly delivered outside of the mother, you may not murder it.” And then you work backwards, trying to figure out when is it okay to terminate a pregnancy. We can start with a “parade of horribles,” about things that everybody can agree upon that disqualify a candidate based upon their character. “Has he killed anybody with his bare hands?” One can move backwards from that extreme.
But stepping back, I think the mere fact that the question of “What disqualifies a candidate” is being asked is a sign of the profound damage that Donald Trump has done to conservative discourse. This is someone who should have been thrown out in the primaries and rejected for any number of reasons — not all of them having to do with character, but a lot of them having to do with character.
I do not want to be locked in to saying, “These are the three things you have to look at,” in terms of disqualification. I am not saying that if you were divorced, you can’t be president. Ronald Reagan was a great president. I’m not saying that you have to have always told the truth about every single thing because obviously we all know that politicians fall short of that benchmark all the time.
At the same time, one benchmark that I think is absolutely disqualifying is whether or not you have actually demonstrated that you’ve thought seriously and intelligently about the job that you are seeking. One of the biggest problems that we have in Republican presidential politics, going back the last few cycles, is that we have had an inordinate number of politicians who are not running to be president of the United States. They are running for better gigs on cable television, or a radio show, or to sell more books. And they don’t do the required homework necessary to be taken seriously.
And I think for people who understand these things, we understand that the willingness to do the homework, to actually study up on these matters, is a reflection of one’s character and a reflection of one’s serious statesmanlike patriotic commitment to the task at hand. And if you’re not willing to know what you are talking about, and put in the time to know what you are talking about, then you have disqualified yourself from seeking the office.
It really doesn’t matter if you come down the right way on this issue, or that way on that issue, and it doesn’t matter if you have imposed upon yourself the modicum of discipline required to mount a whole bunch of talking points from a checklist that some handler gave you. You actually have to know why you are saying such things, and why the things that you are saying are correct.
So people who say, “Well, Ronald Reagan wasn’t a super wonk,” no, he was not a super wonk. But Ronald Reagan thought deeply and seriously about the fundamental issues facing this country for decades before he decided to run for president, and we now know this from the books that have come out after his death.
But for a lot of politicians, including the Republican nominee at the time of this conversation, there is zero evidence that he committed the time, the intellectual wherewithal, the energy or the seriousness to simply doing the basic homework required to be president of the United States. I think that is not only a sign of a lack of character, it’s a sign of a lack of patriotism.