Private Talk and Character

Dennis Prager makes me feel like we are living in the Upside Down.

Photo by SLT

Dennis Prager is a radio host/commentator who tends to be less bombastic than your Rush Limbaughs or Sean Hannitys. While I was never a regular listener, I have been aware of his program for decades. His brand was a more intellectual approach as opposed to the aforementioned AM radio powerhouses’ bloviation. His PragerU, for example, is an attempt to further that brand (whether it achieves that end is a different matter, of course).

His is a practicing orthodox Jew who has long been appealling to Evangelicals due to his staunch social conservativism. He is someone who I might have thought would have been a NeverTrumper (but then again, I thought Evangelicals would reject Trump, so clearly I did not know what I was talking about in that realm). This has not been the case, indeed, ultimately quite the opposite.

Indeed, in an interview, he directly addressed this question in September of 2016:

If you could go into why are you not in the “Never Trump” camp and why are you actually campaigning against that?

Well, I have many reasons why I’m not in the “Never Trump” group, but I think I first have to say that I was opposed to Trump during the entire nomination period. I wrote column after column against him. He was my 17th choice of 17 candidates. So I just want to make clear that I was not a Trump supporter, when there was a choice. There is no choice now. There is no choice. The only choice is four more years of left-wing rule in the United States. It would mean the end of the Supreme Court for the next 40 years or 30 years minimally. People think that’s an exaggerated figure. One appointment means it’s almost always 5 - 4 left-right. If that appointment person is 40, that person will be 75 in 35 years. It’s young today. Look, Bernie Sanders is over 70, nobody gave a hoot. In fact, his greatest supporters were young people. So imagine what 75 will be 35 years from now — it will be middle age. So the court is lost. And that’s almost everything because the left doesn’t need Congress.     

As I have noted before (an example here), there is a certain amount of logic for such views. If you are faced with binary choice and using the courts to stop (or reverse) certain social change, there is logic in someone like Prager (or your rank-and-file Evangelical) to vote for Trump.

In fact, his tepid support morphed into some pretty deep enthusiasm, as Doug Mataconis quoted in recent post (which is in some ways more fascinating, and disturbing, than just making a hard choice between two options):

During an appearance on evangelist James Robison’s Life Today program, conservative radio host and author Dennis Prager plugged his new book, and also took an opportunity tell the world that the birth of his own children doesn’t match up to the excitement he felt when Donald Trump was elected president.

“It turned out for me, such a happy night, I have told my two sons — this will definitely lower me in your esteem, I have no doubt about this, but I will tell you anyway,” he told Robison. “I said, ‘You know boys … the nights you were born were extraordinarily happy nights in my life, but the night Trump won was happier.”

Source: click

Doug provided video in the original post in case anyone thinks this was tongue–in-cheek (spoilers: it wasn’t). And to my point about his appeal to Evangelicals, note that this interchange was on a TBN program.

All of this is background to the following, which I first noticed on Twitter and then noted it was mentioned in one of the open forums.

This clip is part of a longer video, which he starts by talking about his deep desire for “moral clarity” and then starts immediately to talk about Trump’s Access Hollywood tape. He then goes into lengthy discussion of why private talk is not indicative of character. The entire segment lasts a little more than 8 minutes (and I watched to all to make sure there wasn’t some aspect of his argument that I was missing).

The position he presents is made up of some pretty impressive rationalizations and he creates a remarkable moral loophole (especially for someone with a self-described obsession with “moral clarity”). Instead of character being what you do when no one is watching, it is now only what you do when people are watching.

Look, I agree with the notion that if everything one ever said in private was suddenly put on a web site for everyone to review, we would all have said things that were not perfect reflections of who we are. Things said in anger or jest, especially out of context, could really make one look terrible. Although, a lot of it might be very character revealing taken as a whole. If one really does talk radically differently in private than in public, is that not clearly a commentary on one’s character?

Prager’s own very minor example, that he stereotypes groups (gender, ethnicity, religion) when he encounters a bad driver is, to me, actually kind of telling. If your go-to when an Asian or female cuts you off is to jump to stereotypes, I am thinking maybe you have those notions already swimming around in your head.

Regardless, as a defense of Trump, calling the Access Hollywood (which Prager calls “Planet Hollywood” in the video) isn’t about some unguarded, random private utterance. Trump was at a worksite. He was wearing a microphone. This is not some random private statement. Moreover, I cannot think of a situation wherein the following would be made anything other than character revealing, no matter how private the moment:

Trump: Yeah, that’s her. With the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Bush: Whatever you want.

Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Source:, “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Taped Comments About Women VideoNYT

It takes a remarkable amount of denial to take those lines (and the totality of the clip, which is available at the NYT link) and declare they have nothing to do with character.

Worse, he hand-waves away the truly awful things that Trump says as just guy talk about women. I’m sorry, but talking about sexual assault is not just guy talk and is not excusable as just something dudes do. That excuses some pretty terrible statements while impugning all men at the same time.

Side note: one of the more bizarre musing that Prager uses to try and make his point: he notes public urination is a problem, but private urination isn’t. Ok, then.

So, why bring this up? Partly because it is both bizarre and, in my opinion, blatantly wrong. More importantly, it is a great illustration of some of the things that have been brought up in various discussions at OTB of late: the way in which alternative narratives are created to justify support for Trump.

Here we have an avowed religious man whose brand is social conservatism defending “Grab ’em by the pussy” as not a character-revealing statement because it was said in private (under a dubious definition of “private”)

We go from “17th of 17th” to “happiest night of my life” because of judges. From there we move to defending immorality.

If we need an illustration of how authoritarianism can blossom, I think the thought process exhibited herein is illustrative. And no, that’s neither exaggeration nor hyperbole.

And, I can’t help but to continually marvel at the way in which social conservative have embraced a man who is the polar opposite of what they have told us they support. It is an unending avalanche of cognitive dissonance.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Kurtz says:

    Intellectual consistency is important. On the surface, this flies in the face of changing your views based on new data. But it’s pretty easy to tell that this isn’t what Prager is doing here.

    Hell, at least Shapiro has enough integrity to criticize Trump sometimes.

    Prager is doing what Bill Bennett is doing. They were perfectly happy playing the Moralist when Clinton was President. Now they are more than willing to defend the indefensible.

    No integrity whatsoever. Personally I think it’s easier to make money playing to the grievances on the Right. There are plenty of members of the commentariat that are willing to point out what’s really there. It takes a special kind of person to be persuasive spouting nonsense.

    With the Left, the grievances are for the most part real and demonstrable. With the Right, most of the grievances are imaginary or require mental gymnastics. Most people seem to be unwilling to live with themselves if they give up their ethics for a buck.

    15
  2. CSK says:

    People reveal their true characters most often in private utterances. The difference with Trump is that he makes no distinction between private and public. Anyone who would make fun of Serge Kovalesky’s disabled arm,or John McCain for having been captured, or Carly Fiorina’s face, or characterize women in general who disagree with him as pigs, slobs, and dogs, has no character but a vile one.

    And this is what Cult45 loves about him.

    10
  3. Mister Bluster says:

    …he notes public urination is a problem, but private urination isn’t.

    So Praeger is equating what comes out of Trump’s mouth to human waste. aka shit.

    6
  4. An Interested Party says:

    Yet another supposed “conservative” who whores himself for this trash in the White House…if nothing else, this further exposes the moral rot in so many people who disingenuously claim to be moral…history will not be kind to these people…

    4
  5. steve says:

    “If we need an illustration of how authoritarianism can blossom”

    This is a cult of personality. That he said Trump winning made him happier than the birth of his kids is not surprising at all. I still remember how shocked I was when the Trump supporting physicians with whom I work told me that they thought Trump was the only person who could save the country. I have never thought that about anyone and cannot imagine thinking that.

    Steve

    4
  6. reid says:

    I had never heard of Prager before about a year ago. He had a rather lousy appearance on Bill Maher’s show awhile back which cemented my low opinion of him.

    When I hear people saying hypocritical, delusional things like this, I have to wonder how much of it is sincere vs. joining the con; subconscious vs. conscious.

    1
  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It takes a remarkable amount of denial to take those lines (and the totality of the clip, which is available at the NYT link) and declare they have nothing to do with character.

    Worse, he hand-waves away the truly awful things that Trump says as just guy talk about women. I’m sorry, but talking about sexual assault is not just guy talk and is not excusable as just something dudes do. That excuses some pretty terrible statements while impugning all men at the same time.

    OK. I’m pretty sure that when trump made these statements they weren’t hypothetical, that they were in fact an accurate representation of his behavior when he thought he could get away with it. (kinda like thinking it was ok to blackmail a foreign head of state into announcing the opening of an investigation on one of trump’s political opponents. “It was a perfect phone call.”) (trump really truly believes this) And I’m pretty sure Prager is aware of this. In other words Prager is OK with trump sexually assaulting women as long as it is done in private.

    Some how or other I don’t think he would be OK with someone doing the same to him as long as it was done in private.

    7
  8. Gustopher says:

    Side note: one of the more bizarre musing that Prager uses to try and make his point: he notes public urination is a problem, but private urination isn’t. Ok, then.

    Does Prager not follow Trump on twitter? Has he never seen the rallies?

    Not only does the metaphorical pee tape exist, but Trump reproduces it live every chance he gets.

    1
  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kurtz:

    Most people seem to be unwilling to live with themselves if they give up their ethics for a buck.

    In the last 3 years it has become obvious to me that 42% of the people will give up their “ethics” for a hell of a lot less than a buck.

    8
  10. Jax says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: What they had wasn’t “ethics” if they’re willing to give it up for “pwning the libz”.

    7
  11. Mister Bluster says:

    Praeger does not want to be a Never Trump Republican because he does not want President Pud to call him human scum.

    The Never Trumper Republicans, though on respirators with not many left, are in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our Country than the Do Nothing Democrats. Watch out for them, they are human scum!

    The 45th President of The United States

    I wonder if Prager was the Cowardly Lion in a grade school production of The Wiard of Oz?

    5
  12. EddieInCA says:

    I have been listening to Prager for the better part of 35 years. Back in the day, he used to have a weekly radio show in Los Angeles on KABC called “Religion on the Radio” every Saturday night. The Dennis Prager of 1983 would not recognize the Dennis Prager of 2020. 1983 Dennis Prager voted for Jimmy Carter for President in 1976. 1983 Dennis Prager was a religious moderate, and a Democrat. In 1985 Dennis Prager got divorced, and it changed him. He went from moderate religious intellectual to moral scold. Some back then called him a “Jewish Billy Graham”. He’s gone further and further right since then. I used to respect Prager. Since about 2000, not so much. Same with Michael Medved, and many others, who chose to take the easy path – wingnut welfare – and make money while sacrificing their principles. It’s been sad to watch.

    7
  13. senyordave says:

    No human who claims to care about morality could excuse Trump’s behavior. Just for kicks I have listed the twelve Boy Scout virtues below to see how Trump compares.
    TRUSTWORTHY. Tell the truth and keep promises. People can depend on you.
    LOYAL. Show that you care about your family, friends, Scout leaders, school, and country.
    HELPFUL. Volunteer to help others without expecting a reward.
    FRIENDLY. Be a friend to everyone, even people who are very different from you.
    COURTEOUS. Be polite to everyone and always use good manners.
    KIND. Treat others as you want to be treated. Never harm or kill any living thing without good reason.
    OBEDIENT. Follow the rules of your family, school, and pack. Obey the laws of your community and country.
    CHEERFUL. Look for the bright side of life. Cheerfully do tasks that come your way. Try to help others be happy.
    THRIFTY. Work to pay your own way. Try not to be wasteful. Use time, food, supplies, and natural resources wisely.
    BRAVE. Face difficult situations even when you feel afraid. Do what you think is right despite what others might be doing or saying.
    CLEAN. Keep your body and mind fit. Help keep your home and community clean.
    REVERENT. Be reverent toward God. Be faithful in your religious duties. Respect the beliefs of others.
    Trump almost perfectly embodies the opposite of these virtues. Hard to imagine anyone who is not in prison even coming close to him.

    Prager is a self-serving hypocrite, if he really got more joy from Trump’s election than his son’s birth he must be a pretty pathetic person.

    8
  14. Gustopher says:

    If one really does talk radically differently in private than in public, is that not clearly a commentary on one’s character?

    Perhaps that one is capable of recognizing one’s audience, and being sensitive to their feelings?

    There are lots of people who strive to be a better person than they are, and their private speech is likely disappointing. LBJ was a racist scumbag in private, but did an enormous amount to help black folks in America get equal rights.

    In a lot of ways it’s the same question we keep hitting about artists who turn out to be horrible. Do we accept the beauty of their work even if they are ugly people?

    Do we reject Rosemary’s Baby just because Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13 year old girl? Do we scorn the Declaration of Independence just because Thomas Jefferson raped his slaves? Can we watch The Naked Gun and laugh at bumbling OJ Simpson without being reminded that he brutally murdered two people?

    When people are better in public than in private, I have to say “good for them,” because we should all want to be better when we are around other people.

    Donald Trump, at least, spares us the quandary, though, and I thank him for that. He’s horrible in public and in private.

    7
  15. @OzarkHillbilly: This is an excellent point, as I concur that he is describing things he has actually done.

    @Gustopher: Indeed–there is plenty that Trump says in public to lead us all to legitimately question his character.

  16. @EddieInCA:

    I used to respect Prager. Since about 2000, not so much. Same with Michael Medved, and many others,

    Indeed.

    1
  17. Jim Brown 32 says:

    The “religious right” is the faction of Christian that aren’t content with the role of the Church as an apolitical social organization feeding poor people and being a social safety net. You dont need to build robust media ecosystem’s to do that kind of work.

    You do need them however, if the actual goal is to amass and wield political power. That’s really the end game. Think about it…how smart is it to tie the Jesus brand to a political party? Democratic Christian don’t have deep enough pockets for the collection plate?

    Only a buffoon would make that as a consciousness choice if the goal was to sell more Jesus. Jesus is simply the easiest way for these hustlers to gain a foothold within the Republican party and their staunchest demographic. This is another group of people that I have no problem telling them to go fuck themselves. And I easily have several thousand hours of Bible study under my belt to show them exactly where they can find it in the Bible.

    8
  18. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher:

    When people are better in public than in private, I have to say “good for them,” because we should all want to be better when we are around other people.

    Jeffery Dahmer is grateful for your endorsement.

    1
  19. gVOR08 says:

    And, I can’t help but to continually marvel at the way in which social conservative have embraced a man who is the polar opposite of what they have told us they support.

    Social conservatism is a tribal identity. The tribe endorses a natural order. In their natural order men dominate women. So Trump’s Access Hollywood remark doesn’t really bother them.

    Pay no attention to what conservatives say they support. Self awareness is not a front line skill on the right. Neither is clear analysis and writing. If they could clearly state what they support, even they would realize it makes no sense.

    5
  20. dazedandconfused says:

    It’s only explainable by race. MLK pointed to “the most segregated hour”, LBJ accurately predicted the Civil Rights act would cost the Democrats the south for at least a generation. As similar as the theology is between the Southern Baptist black and white churches, nobody includes the blacks among the “Evangelicals”.

    Nobody supports Trump’s morals, it’s about supporting his strident racism. This is the blow-back from electing a black man to the presidency at least a few generation before a large segment of this nation was capable of accepting it. They can’t admit it, many even to themselves, but it’s the root cause for these ridiculous rationalizations. .

    8
  21. gVOR08 says:

    @dazedandconfused: Race and the Great Recession. The Depression brought us fascism and WWII. If we get out of the Great Recession with Brexit and one term of Trump I will count us lucky. Economic anxiety is a real thing, a thing that makes it a lot easier for corrupt politicians to play to race.

    4
  22. Kurtz says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    Everytime I see your name, I realize there is an almost 100% chance that Wooderson probably voted for Trump.

    The substance of your post seems correct to me. I think we may be in a different situation without the Southern Strategy, but maybe not. The whole “reverse racism” line of doublespeak has also become truth for some segment.

  23. Gustopher says:

    For any elected position that has any impact, I would sooner vote for a child molester than a Republican.

    Really.

    I would not be happy that those were the choices, and I would want to force the child molester to resign in disgrace if they would be replaced by a mediocre Democrat, but the current Republican Party is so far from my values that it’s not an option.

    I have respect for those Alabama voters who held their noses and voted for Roy Moore over Doug Jones because they are prolife — I think they’re wrong, but I can respect that they had to make that vote. Same with Republicans that felt they had to vote Trump, despite everything.

    I have zero respect for those who embrace Trump. Which means I only respect about 7% of Republicans at this point, if Trump’s boasts of a 93% approval rate among Republicans are accurate.

    Prager is the worst there is — someone who sees all the problems and has decided that they are ok. Not ok given the alternatives, but ok.

    ——
    I *might* accept a Republican dog catcher. But, I think he would screw it up. I do like dogs though, so maybe that’s good.

    7
  24. Jax says:

    @Gustopher: I’m honestly a little iffy on Republican dog catchers. Are they selling my neighbor’s dog on Facebook or Ebay?!

    1
  25. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher: I 100% agree with you, but I think you’ve chosen a bad hypothetical. Look at recent experience. If there’s a child molester in the race, what are the odds it’s not the Republican?

    5
  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    White men of a certain age get as excited as pre-teens at a Justin Bieber concert when they see Trump. He’s masculine, dontcha know, and he says stuff in a masculine, bullying sort of way that playground pussies like Bill Barr and this buffoon recognize from when they were kids and toadied the bullies, desperate to keep the bully’s violence aimed at anyone but themselves. These are men whose highest aspiration in life is licking the taint of some thug who scares them and excites them at the same time. There’s no bottom with men like this. They’d be rounding up Jews for the camps if Trump told them to.

    Weak men. We are afflicted with a plague of weak men.

    8
  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jax: True, but they don’t know the difference.

  28. Teve says:

    If somebody found the mythological tape of Michelle Obama dragging “whitey” in a private conversation this moron would denounce her every day and twice on Sundays.

    Anybody who defends Trump winds up humiliated. It’s an iron law.

    2
  29. @Teve: In his defense, he claims to have defended HRC from charges of antisemitism in this column based on an alleged private utterance. I cannot get to the whole thing, so cannot fully evaluate what he said.

  30. (And really, more “in fairness” rather than in defense).

  31. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @gVOR08:

    Race and the Great Recession. The Depression brought us fascism and WWII. If we get out of the Great Recession with Brexit and one term of Trump I will count us lucky. Economic anxiety is a real thing, a thing that makes it a lot easier for corrupt politicians to play to race.

    Sadly, I’ve come to believe that tolerance is a luxury of the (relatively) well off. Humans under pressure and stress simply default back to our tribal ancestry, and reject “others”. And while the noise machine has unfairly amplified BS so the right feels pressured over things that aren’t real, the economic stresses on industrial America have been overwhelming for a generation.

    I’ll never understand how the wife of the man who gave us “It’s the economy, stupid” managed to forget that.

    1
  32. Hal_10000 says:

    OK, not to defend Prager here, who’s an idiot. But I think there is a small grain of truth in what he says. If all of us had a camera and microphone on us 24 hours a day, people would be appalled. We all say things we don’t mean, blow off steam, rush to judgement, etc. This is one of the reasons social media is such a double-edged sword. Because it enables people to *react* without thinking and sometimes say things that aren’t reflective of who they are. If he wanted to make this about social media shame mobs and stuff, I’d be with him.

    BUT … this lesson is specifically poorly made when it comes to Trump. It’s not just that he said things on the Access Hollywood tape. If it were just the things he said, I wouldn’t care one bit. It’s that what he said was reflective of things he’d actually done. That women had complained, long before he ran for President, about his inappropriate harassing behavior. And so the AH tape was not just some old dude saying stuff to impress a young dude; it was boasting about unacceptable behavior in which he had allegedly engaged.

    I still think people miss the point of that tape, thinking the tape was the scandal. It wasn’t. The scandal was that it confirmed everything he’d been accused of.

    5
  33. Kurtz says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Perfectly accurate on all counts.

    1
  34. Kingdaddy says:
  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I would want to force the child molester to resign in disgrace if they would be replaced by a mediocre Democrat, but the current Republican Party is so far from my values that it’s not an option.

    Which, ironically explains Republican support for Roy Moore given that Republicans have the identical reaction to the current Democratic Party.

  36. @Kingdaddy: Fantastic.

  37. Jerry says:

    I wonder why virtually all leftists (99%) that write articles like this that try to smear Mr. Prager won’t come on his radio show. Would Steven L. Taylor be one of the few to actually go onto his talk show to defend his own article?

    1
  38. @Jerry: Well, criticism isn’t a smear.

    And it seems rather unlikely that I would be booked for his program–and, to be honest, this would be an odd thing to book me concerning. Addressing the PragerU Electoral College video would be more appropriate.

    Of course, Mr. Prager is free to comment here, should he be so inclined.