We must keep this hollow man far away from our ship of state

The overriding consideration in this year’s presidential election is the character of the candidates. The integrity, capacity, and judgment of the next president will determine the nation’s direction. With erratic and unreliable leadership, the center collapses and policy becomes an incoherent mishmash of pivots and reassessments, flimsy structures built on sand with nothing holding them together.

Donald Trump is an opportunist. He will say and do almost anything to win the election without regard to any core beliefs other than those seen through the distorted lens of his own reality. If convinced that it’s necessary to win, he will read the teleprompter, stop tweeting nonsense, and even soften his tone. If discipline and restraint is called for to achieve victory, he will at least attempt an unlikely transformation.

But what if he wins? He will have achieved the ultimate victory. In his own mind, it will validate his huge ego. He will have prevailed because of who he is, a larger than life superhero who no longer needs to heed the advice of those who counseled moderation. He will be on his own, beholden to no one. The leader will have emerged by the strength of his own personality and, now a demigod, will thereafter bask in the adulation of his people.

If this sounds remotely reminiscent of the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, it is. Dictators are so consumed with self they cannot distinguish their own ambitions from the needs of their people. In his own mind, Hitler was Germany. When the war was lost, he blamed the people, not himself.

Trump cannot be trusted because he has no center. He is a hollow man, filled with flickering images of himself. I feel sorry for him. He has become capitalism’s golden idol, personifying success as excess, celebrity as glory, and ambition as narcissism. Incapable of reflection, he seeks comfort and solace in the attention he so obviously craves.

I do not view him as evil, for that requires a conscience. His weaknesses are not entirely his fault. He cannot help himself. There is something missing but that does not make him any less dangerous. Let him enjoy his wealth, his deals, and his attractive family (by all accounts he is a loving father), but do not put him in a position of immense power.

As a young judge, I once attended a conference where the principal speaker was the chief psychologist at the Nevada State Prison. He described how he was able to treat psychotic inmates with psychotropic drugs and at least stabilize them and also cure neurotic inmates with medication and counseling. But, he said, he had no success with psychopathic or sociopathic prisoners because they had no conscience.

They would tell you whatever they believed you wanted to hear and whatever would be to their advantage. When it came to right or wrong, there was nothing there to work with. He also explained that such people could be smart, charming, persuasive and “successful” con men.

While it’s true that Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate, she is not unhinged. She has displayed poor judgment, particularly at the intersection of her personal and public life. At the very least, she has created the appearance of impropriety by ignoring obvious conflicts of interest. Transferring Clinton Foundation assets and operations to the Gates Foundation before running for president would have been a wise move. Harry Truman set the gold standard upon retirement by refusing to use the office of the president to make money. He had too much respect for the office to trade on it for personal gain. By contrast, the Clintons have parlayed their political legacy into a personal fortune.

There is, however, a major difference between a mistake and a personality disorder. You can recognize, correct, and learn from the former while fixing the latter is largely beyond your control. Therein is the difference between Clinton and Trump. She has a moral compass, albeit imperfect, and the capacity to understand consequences to guide her decision making. I fear the needle on his moral compass is always pointed at himself. What satisfies his enormous ego is by definition the proper course.

“Character” presumes conscience, integrity, temperament, restraint, empathy, and sound judgment. It should be the defining issue in this election. The ship of state cannot be under the command of a Captain Ahab, intent upon the reckless pursuit of his own narcissistic obsession, the elusive and dangerous white whale.