Could there be two more stylistically disparate presidential candidates on the same side of the political aisle (at least nominally) than soft-spoken surgeon Ben Carson and swaggering showman Donald Trump? When asked recently what sets him apart from his rival, Carson cited a favorite verse from his daily reading of Proverbs: “A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.” This is an admirable sentiment, but in a media-driven culture that encourages cults of personality, is it even possible today for “a man of lowly spirit” to become President?
The Federalist recently posted a reverential profile of Carson and declared that his faith, humility, and quiet strength trump Trump’s arrogance. In that article, Carson quoted another verse from Proverbs that guides him: “‘By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life,’ and that’s a very big part of who I am. I don’t get that impression with [Trump]. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t get that.”
He’s not wrong. Whatever you may think of Trump – and he provokes extreme opinions – humility is not a quality that leaps to mind, and that’s just fine with his fans. To them he radiates a winning confidence that, falsely or not, suggests power, while Carson’s reserved demeanor, falsely or not, suggests deference, and Americans don’t want a deferential leader. After two terms of a President often criticized for his “apology tours,” Americans are looking forward to a leader who will kick ass and take names.
The Federalist asserted that Carson’s humility is “not weakness, but a strength that is sorely lacking in our world today.” That echoes the theme of a 2013 book I reviewed for The New Criterion titled Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, by David J. Bobb, who believes not only that “‘American humility’ is not an oxymoron,” but that it is actually our country’s greatest virtue. He argues that as a nation today we have lost touch with both our humility and our greatness, and that we suffer from a toxicity of arrogance that hinders a revival of that greatness.
We tend to admire humility in our Founding Fathers, especially George Washington, who happens to be one of Bobb’s examples of Americans who prove that “humility and magnanimity can coexist in the same soul.” When Washington was offered the opportunity to be crowned king in the early days of our fledgling Republic, he humbly and wisely rejected the temptation. I can envision Ben Carson doing the same, but Donald Trump? Hard to picture him turning down a crown, and that’s a dangerous arrogance, the kind that brings emperors and their empires low.
In fact, Bobb warns in his book that “our fame-addled and power-hungry” culture, in which arrogance is rewarded and humility ignored, is beginning to mirror Rome’s just before its fall. We are desperately in need of political and cultural leaders who manifest St. Thomas Aquinas’ notion of a balance of magnanimity and humility, Bobb writes.
St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote of “the power and excellence of humility, an excellence which makes it soar above all the summits of this world, which sway in their temporal instability, overtopping them all with an eminence not arrogated by human pride, but granted by divine grace.” But the 5th century Augustine was not writing for an audience immersed in a culture whose media frequently shove aside the humble to praise the arrogant. Today, self-promoting gets you noticed; self-effacing gets you erased from the picture altogether. Trump knows this full well; he talks as much about the ratings he brings to the presidential race as he does about the ideas and solutions he has to offer the country.
Despite their polar opposite characters, Trump and Carson hold wide polling leads over the rest of the crowded field of Republican hopefuls, suggesting that many Americans do greatly respect Carson’s quiet strength of character; at the same time others can’t help being drawn to Trump’s unapologetic, bull-in-a-china-shop cockiness. Indeed, Trump’s lead over Carson is almost as great as Carson’s lead over the next most popular candidate. As things stand now, he would defeat Carson handily.
Americans have to get past the hype and think about the character of the person whom we want to be our next President. We need a leader with the right balance of humility and strength, charisma and gravitas, especially in this age of the pop culture Presidency. We need a leader who, like Washington and Abraham Lincoln, is wary of the unchecked ambition that could lead to the creation of an American tyrant. We need a leader who takes a healthy pride – not arrogance – in our exceptionalism, and who recognizes the wisdom in humility. What we don’t need is yet another presidential cult of personality.