‘The presidency,’ FDR said, ‘is preeminently a place of moral leadership.’ Don’t expect any from Donald Trump.
The most striking thing about President Trump’s first 10 days in office is that the ardent nationalist who pledged to put “America first” is emerging as the least American president of the United States.
By least American, I mean least connected to the larger democratic values that define the country.
Our national identity is unique in the world because it’s based not on race, religion, or country of origin, but on ideals that transcend party.
Such ideals are at odds with a president who lies promiscuously, destabilizes the government with impulsive, discriminatory, and inhumane policies backed up with jarring firings, and cannot allow his White House to apologize or admir error under any circumstances, even for neglecting to mention Jews in a Holocaust commemoration. Those are the telltale signs of a foreign dictator, not an American leader.
Trump’s mentor in 1980s New York was Roy Cohn, who helped Sen. Joe McCarthy identify liberals who could be defined as “un-American.” Now the wheel has turned and supporters of patently unconstitutional religious tests are the ones whose patriotism is being called into question.
It’s not just that Trump’s early moves are a shock to the system. They reflect a fatal lack of interest in the origins or nature of the democracy he now leads. The president has apparently never read about the founders (he doesn’t read books), attended a naturalization ceremony, or otherwise paused to appreciate the values he swore an oath to defend.
The core of what it means to be an American is not exactly a secret. We are fortunate enough to have brilliant foundational documents in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and inspiring symbols like the Statue of Liberty that define the American creed. All recent presidents in both parties have used their debuts in office to further articulate the precepts of our civic religion.
Trump refused to do so in his inaugural, and in his first week he showed contempt for the moral basis of that common secular faith, namely respect for the truth. What separates democracies from dictatorships (Communist or otherwise) is that democracies live under not just the rule of law but also under a commonly-accepted set of norms and boundaries that provide additional cushions of accountability.
The specifics of what Trump is doing will fade from memory; the impression that he routinely crashes through those boundaries won’t. Thousands of protesters crowded airports this weekend not just because they loathed Trump and were concerned about detained visitors from several majority Muslim nations. They understand that leaving this behavior unchecked is dangerous for democracy.
It pays to return to first principles. The Declaration of Independence offered a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” and envisioned the new nation as a beacon of freedom for the world, not a country that only engages internationally in order to rack up Trump-style “wins.” Its author, Thomas Jefferson, also wrote the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, which was later enshrined in the First Amendment and became a source of greater pride to Jefferson than being president.
The founders went beyond a vague separation of church and state. They specifically prohibited the government from favoring one religion over another, as Trump did when he gave Christian refugees preference over Muslims. This stricture is so clear that the U.S. Supreme Court, even with a Trump appointee in Antonin Scalia’s seat, will almost certainly uphold a lower court’s decision to invalidate the president’s unconstitutional executive order.
Jefferson once said that if he had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would opt for the latter. Trump, by contrast, spent a chunk of his first week spewing venom and lies at the news media. He has forgotten (if he ever knew in the first place) that the press is the only non-governmental institution explicitly protected by the Constitution. No other industry—not even real estate—is even mentioned.
Trump says he loves Abraham Lincoln, whose honesty and humility apparently left no impression on him. He began lying on day one (about crowd size at his inaugural) and has kept it up almost every day since, most egregiously when falsely asserting that 3 million people illegally voted against him, with not a single illegal voter in the Trump column.
All presidents brag and fib, but the brazenness of Trump’s egotism and lying is only “American” if one means South America, where tin horn dictators over the years have modeled behavior for our own Banana Republicans.
In preparing his crude inaugural address, Trump—unlike almost all of his predecessors—showed no signs of even a cursory reading of Lincoln’s two inaugurals. In his first, Lincoln called upon Americans to answer to “the better angels of our nature”—a deeply American idea entirely foreign to Trump and his appeal to our baser instincts.
In his exquisite second inaugural, delivered at the end of the Civil War, Lincoln spoke of helping widows and orphans on both sides and famously said: “With charity for all; with malice toward none.”
Trump, who gives away little money and has no history of civic involvement, offers charity for none and malice toward all, except Vladimir Putin and assorted boot-lickers and temporary allies on whom he lavishes insincere praise before turning on them.
Trump’s most troubling departure from American traditions (or at least aspirations) of compassion may be his executive order barring refugees fleeing war. His reduction of the number from an already paltry 10,000 a year to zero is reminiscent of what Congress did to Jews fleeing Hitler prior to World War II. It’s as if Emma Lazarus’s words on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) contained an asterisk saying, “Except Syrian Muslims.”
Having inverted Lincoln and betrayed the meaning of the Statue of Liberty, Trump moved on to trashing the legacies of the Roosevelts. His Cabinet is full of the men Theodore called “malefactors of great wealth” and Franklin deemed “economic royalists.” Their presence in Washington, not to mention Trump’s, would have struck both Roosevelts as preventing the government from performing its critical democratic function of checking the excesses of capitalism.
Trump has made a point of reversing the classic American confidence inspired by FDR at the bottom of the Great Depression. The new president’s default approach is more along the lines of: “the only thing we have to use is fear itself.”
Even Ronald Reagan’s inspiring image of America as a “shining city on a hill,” borrowed from John Winthrop, isn’t safe from a sacking by Trump, a barbarian set loose in the land of pilgrims. He prefers a soulless Fortress America atop that hill.
Trump conveniently forgets that “America First” was originally an organization headed by the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh that appeased Adolf Hitler and ended up hastening World War II. The short-sighted Muslim ban may inadvertently do the same for recruitment of terrorists bent on harming the U.S.
“The presidency,” FDR said, “is preeminently a place of moral leadership.” Don’t expect any from Trump. The office doesn’t change its occupant, only deepens character traits that have been there all along. The historian Louis Fischer once described Mahatma Gandhi as a man with “no power, but great authority.”
Trump has great power, but already no moral authority, a recipe for social strife, presidential overreaction, and severe turmoil ahead for America and the world.