I was watching a Republican presidential debate as my eight-year-old, John, sat next to me. Donald Trump, the front-runner, looked left and ripped Ted Cruz as a “liar” before seamlessly pivoting right and skewering Marco Rubio as a “sweating choke artist.” “Lying Ted!” Trump barked. “Choking Marco!” he shouted.
My eight-year-old son laughed at the buffoonish spectacle, as if we’d just tuned in to Cartoon Network. “No, John,” I told him. “That’s not funny. We shouldn’t treat people that way.”
“Is that man going to be our president?” John asked. “I don’t know,” I replied.
I decided to turn off the TV while John is in the room with Donald Trump. Who knows what might come next?
In addition to Trump mocking Rubio and denouncing Cruz, he labeled George W. Bush a “liar” and Jeb Bush a “joke.” As for Mitt Romney: dumb, stupid, “loser.” Megyn Kelly: a “bimbo” with “blood coming out of her eyes.” He doesn’t like her. And if Donald Trump doesn’t like you, he lets you know.
The American Founders extolled the virtue of prudence to our leaders and citizenry. They underscored the cardinal and theological virtues. Trump eschews virtue, embracing vice instead, and his supporters reward him by the millions.
And thus, Trump excoriates his detractors: liars, losers, morons.
“Look at that face!” yapped Trump of Carly Fiorina, a successful businesswoman. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that the face of our next president?”
Again, push the children away from the TV.
Yet another occasion: I check the latest headlines. The cable news station shows a Trump rally. Protesters speak up. This wasn’t the organized protest in Chicago, which Trump blamed on professional left-wing agitators; no, this is a typical political event. But Donald Trump is no typical candidate. Not one for criticism, Trump instructs his supporters how to respond to the dissenters: “knock the crap out of them!” Don’t worry, the millionaire ensures: “Just knock the hell—I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees, I promise. I promise.”
The cable news station shows repeated examples of such Trump bombast. Then follow clips of Trump supporters roughing up protesters in what could be a superb DNC ad against Trump in November.
One Trump supporter, 78-year-old John McGraw, sucker-punched 26-year-old Rakeem Jones, with no regrets. “You bet I liked it,” McGraw growled to the press. “Knocking the hell out of that big mouth.” (Note how McGraw used Trump’s exact words: “knock the hell.”) Asked if Jones had it coming, McGraw affirmed, “Yes, he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
Again, I turn off the TV before the kids see. Even more unsettling, the man behaving this way could be my kids’ next president, and from my own political party. The party of Lincoln and Reagan.
As I write, Trump is raising the prospect of riots if unjustly denied the Republican nomination. One of his surrogates tells CNN that “riots aren’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg with Donald Trump. I was talking to my friend Mark, a Hollywood evangelical. He has five daughters. I asked how he intends to explain Trump to his girls. Trump is not only repeatedly divorced, but left his wives for mistresses and brags about his sexual conquests (including with married women). The casino mogul has strip clubs under his belt. We thought Bill Clinton was bad. At least Bill had the political discreetness to deny his escapades. (How’s that for a new standard?) Trump boasts.
Mark told me that he has had the “Trump talk” with his daughters. He has told them that, sadly, all morality could be out the window this election. Among the Republicans, there still are solid family men in Ted Cruz and John Kasich (as was “Choking Marco”). Unfortunately, with Trump, the moral character that Republicans have demanded in their leaders has become an utter non-issue to angry advocates. This year, Democrats will be able to tell Republicans that all their past talk of family values and criticisms of Bill Clinton was a bunch of rotten hypocrisy.
The presidency is preeminently a position of moral leadership. “Morality,” said our first president, George Washington, is an “indispensable support” to political prosperity. That has not changed. What is changing is the huge number of Americans who suddenly don’t care about moral behavior in their leader, or excuse or justify it.
And so, my advice to parents, especially on the Republican side: If Donald Trump gets the nomination, be prepared to sit down with your kids to have a frank “Trump talk.” Teach them not to be like that man. And always be ready to quickly change the TV channel.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.