Temperament has become a key theme this presidential season. Who has the right kind of temperament to be president of the United States? This question has been thrown around so often, including by the candidates themselves, that it is worth examining in some detail.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines temperament as:
… a person’s or animal’s nature, especially as it permanently affects their behaviour.
While it tells us little about what qualities would make a good president, it does contain an interesting idea: that particular aspects of one’s personality permanently affect their behaviour. Thus one’s temperament is likely a fixed quality, one that is unlikely to change.
As Ezra Klein has argued, the past week has provided ample proof, if more were needed, that Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit for the presidency. The trait that makes him so dangerously unfit is his emotional volatility.
That Trump is easily baited has been on display since he began running for president. That America’s enemies would construct detailed psychological profiles of him and launch sophisticated plans to take advantage of his weaknesses is obvious.
Klein has identified something that has been troubling me for some time. Trump has expended far more time and energy on responding to perceived sleights and insults than he has on policy and campaigning.
Likewise his inability to respond once, then move onto more important political and campaign business has been demonstrated time and again. His pattern is to obsessively engage in the drama for days, constantly fuelling the latest controversy and thus keeping it in the media spotlight long after it would have naturally disappeared.
What is significant about this is that the result often draws unwanted attention to the pettiness of Trump and his bizarre sense of victimisation.
The Alicia Machado tweetstorm is just the latest in a long list of sexist, racist, incoherent tirades against the media, political opponents, Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, refugees, women, and other countries.
Trump’s attention has not only been easily sidetracked but he has demonstrated a remarkably consistent preference for engaging in narratives of personal grievance and vengeance than he has ever shown for the major policy issues that Americans will have to grapple with in the coming decades. This is deeply troubling.
The second point Klein identifies that deserves much greater attention is the serious lack of control any of Trump’s advisers seem to be able to exercise over the campaign. It seems the candidate rarely takes his closest advisers’ advice, either in terms of his personal behaviour or in the development of detailed and coherent policy and strategy.
On the campaign trail, ignoring the experts you’ve assembled to advise you might result in poor opinion polls and frequent defections and changes of personnel. Yet for a US president, the consequences of ignoring expert policy advice would be infinitely more dangerous for America and its allies.
The politics of trust
In contrast, then, what do we know about Hilary Clinton’s temperament? And is it more “presidential” than Trump’s?
None of the many criticisms levelled at Clinton really fit the definition of temperament. Her past policy decisions – some of which have had disastrous consequences (the 1994 crime bill, to name one) – all suggest a certain ideological disposition, rather than some inherent aspect of her personality.
Her trustworthiness is perhaps more an indication of temperament than particular political persuasions. The charge that Clinton cannot be trusted seems to be the most serious weapon in the anti-Clinton arsenal. The email saga and questions about the Clinton Foundation are frequently cited as evidence of her tendency to hide important information from the public.
Yet when compared to Trump and his decidedly loose relationship with reality, this quality is hardly unique to Clinton, or indeed any politician. I can’t think of a prominent political figure that hasn’t at some point had secrets exposed.
What Clinton has demonstrated consistently during her time as a senator and as Secretary of State was the ability to work co-operatively and productively with policy experts on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Her public record stands as proof that she is eminently qualified, regardless of whether one agrees with her policies or not.
This seems to be the point that has been lost in the arguments about temperament. It has nothing to do with whether you like the candidates’ actual policies or agree with them ideologically. Rather, it is the ability to handle one of the most complex political offices in the world and lead with professionalism and diligence.
What Trump’s disdain for expertise betrays, and Clinton’s respect for it illustrates, is the key quality the US president needs: thoughtfulness.
It encompasses the desire to learn as much as one can about an issue, to analyse and reflect on the evidence available, to hear different perspectives, and to weigh and assess potentially conflicting advice.
Finally, they need to then have the capacity to exercise their judgement in order to make difficult decisions that are in service to the good of the nation. Clinton has often displayed precisely this quality. To my knowledge Trump never has.