As the latest revelations of Donald Trump's crass boasting about groping women have caused outrage and even encouraged some Republicans to urge him to step down from the ticket, defenders have fallen back on the defense that many other leaders have been crude sexual alley cats. While Sean Hannity was perhaps most amusing by making the defense "King David had five hundred concubines, for crying out loud!" most people have pointed to more modern figures, particularly JFK.
It's true that Kennedy's sexual exploits were just that, exploitive, and it was only in a time when reporters were used to covering for the powerful that someone could have so successfully covered up such irresponsible and repulsive behavior. However, the comparison misses two things.
Firstly, JFK's bad behavior was indeed bad behavior, and it pointed to a shallowness and recklessness which marked his problems in other areas: his repeated and unsuccessful attempts at invasions and assassinations in Cuba, his weakness with the Soviet Union which led to their testing of American resolve in the Cuban Missile Crisis, his haphazard handling of Vietnam, etc. The fact that JFK was bad, and at the time got away with it, does not excuse knowingly electing a bad leader now -- and one lacking even Kennedy's mitigating virtues of war record and 'smart set' backing.
Secondly, however, the early Sixties were another time, a time in which the abuse of women by powerful men was all too accepted by the elite and too little talked about by the rest. They were a time in which there were different live wires in politics, the touching of which could end a politician's chances quickly. In 1960, Russia was one of those live wires. If JFK -- who ran on the claim that General Eisenhower had been soft on Russia and allowed a 'missile gap' to develop, leaving the US less prepared for war than the communists -- had displayed the kind of affection for Khrushchev that Trump has for Putin, he would have gone absolutely nowhere in the world of 1960. Communism and Russian imperialism were a live issue in that time, and the voting public would not have tolerated a politician who was seen as soft on the issue. Democratic insiders of Kennedy's day who knew of his sexual proclivities -- if they even considered them wrong, which many didn't -- could rest assured that his failings would not hurt his ability to get done what they wanted in a leader.
In this day and age, a politician can survive flirting with Russia, but issues of marriage and sexuality are not some circus side issue. For religious conservatives in particular, some of the most key issues of our time involve what it means to treat others with human dignity under the conditions wrought by the sexual revolution: Is marriage constrained by certain biological realities, or is it simply the social acknowledgement of whatever sort of sexual relationships people desire to have? Does equality between the sexes demand that women have the unlimited right to end a pregnancy even if the unborn child is living human person?
It is religious conservatives who have to fear not only that many will hurt themselves and hurt society by following wrong beliefs about these issues, but that our very social institutions, our churches and schools, will be crushed by the strong arm of the law if we refuse to change our beliefs to fit the prevailing norms of sexually libertarian elite culture. We need a leader in this time who can credibly make the case for marriage, for life, for the idea that these foundational values do not mean the oppression and marginalization of the half of our country who are women. Someone with Trump's morals (or lack thereof) cannot make that case for us. He is not a strong leader with a failing, he is a weak leader who is unable to lead us in the battles at hand.
The glorification of sexual assault which we heard in Trump's remarks would be wrong in any age. It marks him as a vicious, gross, and faithless man. But people are right that in various times people have ignored ignored one failing in a leader because of the importance of other strengths. When people came to Lincoln accusing General Grant of being a drunkard, Lincoln shrugged it off on the basis that Grant won battles. But he did this only because Grant's alleged failings were a side issue compared to his obvious successes as a general.
In this case, Trump's evils are not tangential to his job as presidential candidate for the Republican Party. It would be one thing to ignore a general's personal sins because he won battles, it would be utterly foolish to shrug off a general's inability to win battles because one liked his style in other respects. In terms of the actual battles we face -- to credibly present our views, to increase support for them, and to turn them into enacted policy -- Trump's actions, past and present, make him a leader with no ability to win.
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