Tree or Shadow: A Look at Donald Trump, Character, and Reputation

By Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
January 2, 2020Updated: January 7, 2020


Recently, I enjoyed an evening of books, bourbon, and a cheerful fire with a friend from childhood. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years, and spent a lot of time catching up.

Eventually, as it always does, our talk turned to books we were reading or had recently read.

When my friend brought up Dorian Lynskey’s “The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984,” our conversation segued into politics. 

It was my first meaningful conversation with someone who despises President Donald Trump.

Exterior Evidence

My friend loathes the president, not for his policies, many of which he supports, but for his character: his infamous comment on grabbing women; his shady business deals; his bragging and lying; his tweets.

Describing himself as a moderate, my friend also found the Democratic presidential candidates equally contemptible, though as much for their policies as for their characters. 

While the conversation occasionally became heated, we remained friends and went to breakfast together the following morning, though by unspoken agreement, we stayed away from politics. As I continued my long drive home, and over the next few days, I kept returning to our discussion, reviewing points made by my friend, points I will probably be mulling over for a long time.

I agreed with some of his analysis of Trump’s character. The president is quick to attack his detractors, often in a brash and obnoxious language. He can be cruel, tends to exaggerate his wins, and has sometimes stretched the truth to breaking point.

American Presidents, Then and Now

But then I thought of other presidents, of their policies and their character. All of them in my lifetime—I was born during the Truman presidency—were flawed human beings. Some of them cheated on their wives. Many of these men at times misled the American people. Many made grievous judgments in regard to national and international decisions, some of which stemmed from their character. 

Yet none of them, not even President Richard Nixon, endured the flak hurled at our current president. As most of us know, reporters, pundits, and politicians were gunning for the president before he took office, calling themselves the Resistance and attempting, through smear tactics and impeachment, to remove him from the White House, in part because they couldn’t accept his shocking election win. Trump Derangement Syndrome, or TDS, not only entered our vocabulary, but has grown worse with the passage of time.

It was that word, Character with a capital C in my mind, which kept coming back to me. How important was Trump’s character to me? 

Like my friend, I agree with most of the president’s policies. His successes have been staggering: the roaring economy, the number of judicial appointments, his refusal to keep fighting endless wars, and his constant determination to put American interests first. If we look simply at his achievements, he deserves our applause, not our censure.

So what about his character?

Virtue and President Trump

Granted his flaws, can we find signs of virtue in Trump’s character? Let’s take a look. 

In the few instances when the media reports Trump meeting with veterans, with people of color, and with children and families, these Americans come away from those face-to-face encounters with impressions of the man quite at odds with what they have heard and seen in the media. They report Trump as being congenial, warm, and interested in them.

A friend of mine here in Front Royal, Virginia, has an acquaintance who personally knows Trump, regards him as a caring person, and can’t understand why more in the media have failed to discover that man. My friend says the “game face” worn by Trump in public is quite different than his private persona.

If children reflect their parents’ values and character, then judging at least from outward appearances, Trump’s five kids have done themselves and their parents proud. Each has pursued worthy careers and goals, often working with their father, and the older ones seem honorable in their family life. 

We might also consider his character in the light of the barbs and slurs thrown daily at him. Here’s a man who, even before the election, was savaged by the media. Those barrages of criticism have never let up. By now, most of us would have wilted under such an onslaught, but not Trump. He takes the hits, he counterpunches, and he keeps moving forward. In another man, we might admire that grit.

Finally, maybe the rough-edged, blunt-spoken Trump is exactly what this country needs at this moment in our history.

He won voters by promising change, and unlike other presidents, he has delivered on many of those promises. If people like my friend, a lifelong Democrat now turned independent, can agree that these policies are for the most part good for the country, then we must consider the possibility that these policies might never have seen the light of day without Donald Trump.

And speaking of character, what of the president’s opponent in the last election? Even for many Democrats, character isn’t a word that pops to mind in tandem with Hilary Clinton.

Character Versus Reputation

Character, or virtue if you will, is important. We desire virtue in our religious leaders, in those who teach and coach our young people, in our friends and family, and yes, in our politicians. Given our national penchant for slicing and dicing all our public figures, however, for always looking for the worst in them instead of the best, virtue may be hard to detect. 

Arguments often go awry because the participants fail to define their terms. Perhaps my friend and I should have defined what we meant by character. Instead of character, was it possible that my friend was arguing about Trump’s reputation? Reputation is how others perceive our character. Character is what lives inside us.

As this quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln makes clear, character is different from reputation: “Character is like a tree, reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

Over the past three years, the president’s detractors have thrown a mountain of mud at him, making any objective judgment of his personality and temperament nearly impossible. Which raises this question: Is what we know of Donald Trump—or for that matter, of any public figure—tree or shadow?

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.