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Op-Ed: Trump may be immoral, but most Americans don’t care

President Trump at a news conference at the White House on Sept. 27
Most Americans say their opinion of President Trump is based more on what he has done as president, which suggest that attacking his character won’t resonate with the majority of the electorate.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press )

Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, it is hard to remember a week when my students have not asked me how a man with such an appalling personal and professional record of unethical behavior could still command the respect of so many Americans.

Certainly, surveys regularly show that Americans rank Trump lowest among modern presidents on ethical standards, including Nixon and Clinton, and numerous thought pieces by the media focus on his morality and character.

But the truth is, when assessing Donald Trump, most Americans care less about who he is and what he stands for. They base their judgment more on what he has done in office.

A new poll from the Survey Center on American Life of the American Enterprise Institute offers insight into this question: How do Americans weigh a president’s personal qualities against his policies and accomplishments?

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The data show that in aggregate 60% of Americans say their opinion of Trump is based more on what he has done as president, while 39% say it’s based on who Trump is and what he stands for. This suggests that attacks on Trump’s character won’t resonate much with the majority of the electorate.

In fact, this result holds true with little variation among survey respondents by income, geographic location, education or gender differences. Even the opinion of immigrants and native-born Americans converge on this question — 64% of Americans born outside the U.S. judge Trump by his actions in office rather than his character and values, as do 59% of people born in this country.

Even evangelical Americans, who might be expected to care more about morality and ethics, are also more focused on performance in office (64%) than on the president’s personal morals and ethics. Some 60% of non-evangelicals feel the same way, as do 62% of Roman Catholics and 63% of Protestants. Atheists and agnostics collectively are more likely to view Trump through a character lens, but they still lean toward considering his actions.

Political ideology, however, causes a divergence in views. In the survey, 71% of conservatives said Trump’s actions affected their assessment of him more than his character. A far smaller percentage of liberals (55%) said they were swayed more by his actions.

But the greatest differences come into play when we look at race and age. More white, non-Latino Americans (64%) say they assess Trump based on what he has done in office rather than on his personal qualities. Latino and Asian Americans, likewise, focus on his job. But Black Americans differ; they are evenly split.

The most fascinating part of this story is the generational difference in how Trump is viewed. Of the Generation Z group (teens and young adults), 59% report evaluating the president based on who he is and what he stands for, with only 40% saying they judge him based on his actions. This is the inverse of the overall survey response.

Millennials — who are out of college, in the workforce and have families of their own — are more evenly split, 54% for what Trump has done and 45% for what he stands for. Among baby boomers, 70% say they judge Trump based on what he has done and only about 30% say they focus more on his character.

My students — like the rest of Gen Z — are outliers. They are deeply disgusted by Trump’s character and private behavior and judge him on those traits, but most of the country does not agree with them, with even groups that preach morality sidelining those considerations.

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The lesson here is simple and important as the presidential race heads into its final weeks. It may be less fruitful to focus on Trump’s character and values, when a majority of voters is less influenced by such factors. Those who want to defeat Trump in November would be better served to focus on his policies and concrete actions or lack of action in his four years in the White House.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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