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Character counts, first and last, in American politics from here on out

Whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump is declared the winner in this election, what we worry about most is the loss of personal character as a defining American virtue.

Mihir Karia votes as his daughter Rosabela, 4, watches at the Jonathan Burr Elementary School in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood on Election Day.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

And now we’re left to picking up the pieces, to finding our way back home, feeling like we were pretty naive to begin with.

For all our failings as a nation, we have always felt sure we had something good going. We have thought there is a level of fair play, of respect for the rules of our governing institutions, to which we all buy in, disagree as we might. We thought it was a given.

Now we’re not so sure, regardless of who wins this presidential election. The last four years don’t feel like an aberration, like something ugly that began and will end with Donald Trump. They feel like something seething that was always there. Trump just tapped in, exploiting the resentments of victimhood.

Character is everything

Our nation will pick up and move on. We still believe that. We’ll find a way to bridge our differences, more or less. Core institutions — the separation of powers, the power of the vote, a free press — will prevail, and we’ll find our way back to the same Thanksgiving table, even if we never look at each other in quite the same way again.

On the most basic level, though, we’ll know and worry more than ever that our government and politics are only as good as we are. It’s an obvious truth, but the last four years have given it a new urgency:

Character doesn’t just count. It’s everything.

That’s not the storybook version of our American system. As children in civics class, we are taught that a small group of brilliant men, the Founding Fathers, devised an ingenious system of government checks and balances precisely to guard against leaders of low character and the passions of the mob.

The Senate would be a check on the House. The legislative branch would be a check on the executive branch. The judicial branch would be a neutral referee. The Electoral College would protect small states against big states. And the free-for-all of an unfettered press — the Fourth Estate — would assure that the most unassailable facts and best ideas win out.

This often has proven to be more talk than reality, as any Black American growing up in the Jim Crow South could attest. But the ideals made sense and we patted ourselves on the back — the system works! — every time those checks and balances took down someone like Sen. Joe McCarthy or President Richard Nixon.

Now we know

But maybe we were just lucky. McCarthy didn’t have a Twitter account, thank goodness. Nixon, for all his faults, was not beyond shaming. And there was no Fox News to amplify a thousand falsehoods to a disturbingly large number of people who will believe anything that feeds their resentments.

Now we know. When a president and his party govern without integrity, with no purpose except to win, our country is in trouble.

Environmental regulations are trashed to please coal company executives. Undocumented immigrants are kicked when they’re down and scapegoated. Protestors for racial justice — the great majority of whom truly are peaceable — are derided as violent thugs. White supremacists get an invitation to the party. A bounty is put on the head of American soldiers by Russia, and the president and his admirers say nothing.

This election, which remained too close to call as of 12:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, was always about personal character, first and last. Trump never had it, and the Republican Party that props him up threw it away. Joe Biden has plenty of it, whatever else anybody might say.

COVID-19 is surging because Trump lacks character. He feared the political fallout of the pandemic — that he might look like a loser — so he denied it and ignored it and hoped it would go away.

The economy is a mess because Trump lacks character. God forbid he should lift a finger for Democratic governors and big cities that will never vote for him.

More than 500 immigrant children have lost their parents because Trump lacks character. To be a bully is his brand.

Values taking a beating

We can, as a nation, repair much of the measurable damage Trump and his administration have done. We can reimpose rules to protect our air and water. We can mend relationships with allies. We can get real in the fight against COVID-19.

But whether Biden or Trump wins this election, what we worry about most is the loss of personal character as a defining American virtue.

For four long years, the values we try hardest to instill in our children — trustworthiness, respect for others, taking responsibility, fairness and caring — have taken a beating in our politics and our culture.

What do we do to come back from that?

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