Bad leadership is a national-security threat

A court-room sketch of Donald Trump during jury selection in New York, April 18.  (Reuters)
A court-room sketch of Donald Trump during jury selection in New York, April 18. (Reuters)


The American porn-star trial, the tawdry British memoirs—all signal weakness and decadence.

Most politics is day by day, and certainly we consume it that way. But the thought that presses on my mind has distant horizons.

The criminal trial of Donald Trump, de facto Republican presidential nominee, commenced Monday in Manhattan Criminal Court. The case revolves around charges that he directed hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, the adult-film performer, to stop her from speaking publicly of what she alleges was their sexual relationship. Witness lists not yet released are expected to include David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer said to have been involved in a “catch and kill" scheme to bury Ms. Daniels’s claims in 2016, and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model. Days before the 2016 election this newspaper reported Ms. McDougal had told friends of an affair with Mr Trump, and also received money and blandishments from the Enquirer.

In the first days of the trial the judge refused to recuse himself and refused to allow into evidence the famous “Access Hollywood" videotape, in which the defendant claimed his fame was such that he could grab women by the genitals because “when you’re a star, they let you do it." Mr. Trump was admonished for seeming to mutter menacingly toward a prospective juror, and the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman reported that he fell asleep at the defendant’s table: “His head keeps dropping down and his mouth goes slack." CNN’s Jim Acosta joked Mr. Trump might call such reports “fake snooze."

All of this is part of the fabulous freak show that is American politics, but we’re getting too used to scandal, aren’t we? We’ve become blasé.

The quality of our leaders is deteriorating, and we’re so used to it it’s not alarming us anymore.

I often read the memoirs of contemporary British politicians. Once I read weighty biographies by serious historians of the greats—Gladstone, Disraeli, Churchill, Harold Macmillan—but current leaders don’t seem great, and don’t last. They often write memoirs, however, and I read them to horrify myself.

Nadine Dorries’s “The Plot," her memoir of her tenure as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is quite wild. (In 2012, as a member of Parliament, she appeared on the reality TV show “I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!" which, almost touchingly, offended some people.) She calls her book a “shocking tale of corruption and unaccountable power." It’s gossipy and score-settling: “Lee Cain was [Dominick] Cummings’ creature." “Dominick hated Carrie," Mr. Johnson’s future wife.

A source tells her of an incident in which a member of Parliament had sex on a billiard table as four other members watched. Another tells her of Tory sex parties. Another source—Ms. Dorries isn’t a historian or journalist, and we must trust that these are real sources and not third brandies—says of government in Westminster, “It’s all broken. Like, all the parameters that kept things in place—respect, values, public service—it’s all gone." He tells her a member of Parliament gave a young female a date-rape drug.

In Rory Stewart’s more thoughtful and textured “How Not to be a Politician," the former lawmaker diplomat reports the brains of Westminster politicians “have become like the phones in our pockets: flashing, titillating, obsequious, insinuating machines, allergic to depth and seriousness, that tempt us every moment of the day from duty." Mr. Johnson is “a chaotic and tricky confidence artist, almost entirely unfit to be prime minister." His successor, Liz Truss, confuses caution with cowardice: “Everything she did . . . had the flavour of a provocation." (I haven’t yet opened Ms. Truss’s memoir, published this week, but the Guardian reports she contributes to the history of political insults by labeling party members who didn’t back her sufficiently “Chinos"—Conservatives in Name Only, who I guess tend to wear chinos. The Times of London said that for whole chapters the book is “readable only in the most literal sense of the word.")

Back to Mr. Stewart. He was approached by an aide to the wealthy Russian Evgeny Lebedev, who invited him to stay for a weekend at Mr. Lebedev’s castle in Italy. A celebrity model who posed topless in the Sun would be there, she said; it would be fun. “I said as politely as I could that this was a joke, ‘I’ve just become a foreign minister. There’s no way I can possibly go. . . . The man’s father was an officer in the KGB.’ " Also an oligarch. “ ‘Oh don’t worry about that,’ she replied. ‘Boris Johnson is coming and he is Foreign Secretary.’ " Mr. Stewart didn’t go. Mr. Johnson did, and later put his host in the House of Lords.

The thing about these books is they’re almost all so tatty, so seamy. There’s a smallness to the preoccupations revealed, as if the authors are proud to be immature. They’re political leaders in the business of making history, yet they evince no particular interest in it. The American court case with the porn star, the shallow, frivolous British memoir—they seem to me of a piece, and part of the unseriousness of the West’s leaders.

Why is this worth mentioning, since everyone seems to have noticed a deterioration in their quality? Because our foes know. The character of our leaders seems to me a national-security issue.

My concern is that history will see it this way: At the exact moment America’s foes decided to become more public in their antipathy and deadlier in their calculations—“back to blood," as Tom Wolfe said, in terms of the nature of peoples’ future loyalties—at that same moment our leaders in the West were becoming more frivolous and unfocused, more superficial, than ever in modern times. I suspect our foes notice this. It is perhaps part of why they have become more aggressive.

Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, whatever else they were, no one ever thought they were buyable or shallow in their advancement of America’s meaning and interests. Their successors seem to lack a comparable internal stature. We’re too quick to accept the idea they’d let their family use their name to get money—from the company in Ukraine, or the one in China, or the Saudi sovereign-wealth fund.

I’m not saying once we had Henry Clay and now we have Marjorie Taylor Greene but—well, I guess I am saying that. And I think it’s dangerous.

The unseriousness of our leaders isn’t a small and amusing tabloid story but a reality that ought to startle us. Leaders of other nations extrapolate from our leaders, whom they know. They think that as they are, we are. It contributes to the power of the argument, in their councils of state, that the West has lost its way.

Sometimes serious national goals have to be long-term. In the daily press of events we don’t think enough about the character of those we’re putting forward to represent us.

One particularly good man here, one exceptionally good woman there, could begin to turn it around, or might at the very least startle foreign leaders and make them reappraise. That would be a good long-term project for us as citizens: Get a better class of humans to go into the business of leading us.

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