Why Donald Trump is No Gentleman

"Why Donald Trump is No Gentleman," Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2016.

The Wall Street Journal
Why Donald Trump Is No Gentleman
Like Machiavelli, he makes clear that winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.

By Harvey C. Mansfield
July 29, 2016 6:23 p.m. ET
The most obvious observation about Donald Trump is one rarely made: He is not a gentleman. “Not a gentleman” is a designation and reproach he richly deserves but has not received. And why is that? “Gentleman” is no longer a standard we enforce or even a term we use. The outstanding person in this election is Donald Trump, in that he attracts the most attention, but the outstanding fact is the voters behind him who excuse Mr. Trump for his ungentlemanly behavior.

A gentleman—to define him quickly—is a man who is gentle by habit and character, and not because he is somehow forced to be. Character is key. The Donald has said in one of his performances on Bill O’Reilly ’s television show that he “likes to be a gentleman” with women, a generous gesture of his. And one of his girlfriends declared that the New York Times had got her story wrong: She was not demeaned or offended by Mr. Trump; to her he was a “gentleman.”

This is pretty thin testimony. What would Carly Fiorina and Megyn Kelly say of their experience as Mr. Trump’s targets? Also, a gentleman would prefer to be thought of as a gentleman rather than be praised as one, let alone boast of it himself.

John McCain would expect, though not require, us to recognize his honorable conduct in a Communist prison camp during the Vietnam War as being beyond just reward. To Mr. Trump, however, Mr. McCain was a loser for having had the bad luck to be captured by the North Vietnamese. (“I like people who weren’t captured,” Mr. Trump said.) When the Republicans put Mr. McCain up for the presidency, Mr. Trump implied, they were nominating a loser.

They compounded their mistake in the next presidential election by nominating Mitt Romney, another gentlemanly loser. Now Republicans have the opportunity to put up a winner, or at least one who believes in winning, namely himself. With his disdain for Mr. McCain, Trump makes it clear that, for him, winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.

This is Machiavelli in a nutshell. But Machiavelli said that one should either caress or eliminate a rival, never merely insult him. With an insult, you leave the rival alive to seek revenge. Yet Mr. Trump does not fear the revenge of John McCain or Mitt Romney or their Republican supporters. He “tells it like it is,” meaning that he is bold enough to say what he likes about his rivals and enemies. He is free; the rest of us are afraid, but we have the admiration of the timid for one who is fearless, he believes.

We shall see how far this policy takes him. Mr. Trump is not quite a liar, because a liar tries to conceal truths inconvenient to him—or her. It’s more that he doesn’t care, or doesn’t even know, whether he lies or not.

Readers will have noted that my argument suffers from deplorable, out-of-date sexism. Machiavelli was the boldest teacher against the honor of the gentleman, but he too was an old-fashioned sexist. There are several reasons why the gentleman has lost his good repute in addition to the fundamental Machiavellian one, picked up by Mr. Trump, that he is not a winner: The gentleman is also not necessarily a commercial success, nor is he a democratic figure. But today the main objection is that he is not gender-neutral.

To make the gentleman gender-neutral, it is necessary to transform him into a sensitive male. He must begin to check his unconscious habits of male superiority, take note of the sensibilities and vulnerabilities of women, and submit to affirmative action. In new programs of retraining, he must learn the prudent ways of women and unlearn the irrational vagaries of men. He probably won’t do all this on his own; so he must be required to become politically correct.

Is there much doubt that Donald Trump represents resistance to this plan on the part of men and of those women who say they like “real men”? It isn’t that he cares about a cause, but as a demagogue he loves to be loved, and as a vulgar man he has an affinity for whatever is vulgar. Incapable as he is of appreciating the gentleman, Mr. Trump earns the disdain of the promoters of gender neutrality. Mr. Trump’s resistance to political correctness, however, has the coarseness of a male. Or what used to be the coarseness of a male. Now that women are practicing to swear like sailors, Mr. Trump is a reminder of male superiority in the department of vulgarity. Surely no woman would have run his campaign.

Those of us who hanker for the return for some part at least of the gentleman are in a fix. We are caught between distaste for a man who is not a gentleman and dislike of the political correctness that he so energetically attacks—yet whose effect he illustrates.

Mr. Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard University, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.