Living Trumpishly means having a vulgar, vicious president who unleashes inner demons, not better angels. Living Trumpishly means Left and Right both listening censoriously, acting self-righteously, and detesting those who dare disagree with “us,” the enlightened. Nevertheless, America is resilient.
Despite the pain and chaos Donald Trump generates, the Constitution is working. Trump’s great failure, however, is reducing America’s sacred “bully pulpit” to a bullying pulpit.
First the good news. The stock market is climbing, unemployment is dropping. America-the-functional is functioning. Nearly 60% of Americans are bullish economically. Trump’s opponents are mobilizing, exercising their still-vigorous democratic rights and shaping the debate profoundly, from rebranding children of illegals “dreamers” to finally, belatedly, outing some sexual thugs.
The separation of powers is checking and balancing Trump – despite Republicans controlling Congress.
Honest Obamians should admit that Trump’s tax bill – whose impact will take years to assess – had some good: even Barack Obama sought lower corporate taxes. Moreover, in defeating Islamic State (ISIS), challenging Iran, recognizing Jerusalem, trusting Israel and dissing the UN, Trump’s foreign policy outshines Obama’s.
So America will survive Trump’s harshness toward immigrants and sweetness toward alt-right hate-mongers, his sloppy racism and man-crush on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Who knows whether his saber-rattling will intimidate or inflame North Korea.
But these mysteries keep some debates about him in the realm of the normal, continuing America’s post-Sixties liberal versus conservative clash.
Trump’s assault on America’s civic culture, however, is pathological: relentless, unnecessary, inexcusable and destructive. It’s why nearly 60% of Americans dislike him. In renouncing the non-partisan, kingly presidency, Trump abandons the magic that unites a country, making citizens feel good about one another, their leaders, themselves.
In 1932, a New York tycoon running for president, Franklin Roosevelt, called the presidency “more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.”
Seeing presidents as “leaders of thought” elevating the people reflected the sensibilities of ‘76. The Declaration of Independence expressed “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Inventing the presidency, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 68 that the presidential chair should be “filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” That described the consensus choice for president, George Washington.
Moral leadership is not moralistic but mission-driven, rooted in biblical values and visions, mobilizing democratic citizens to improve their lives, their nation, the world. Americans embraced and perfected this liberal nationalism.
Washington’s presidency injected pragmatism into this idealism. In his first inaugural address, defining America as a novus ordo seclorum, a New Order of the Ages, Washington vowed to “win the affections of its Citizens, and command the respect of the world.” The Republic’s “destiny” was to preserve “the sacred fire of liberty” through this grand “experiment.” Like the Alpine Swift, a bird that rarely stops flying, Washington – and his greatest successors – saw democracy as forever progressing, perpetually seeking to soar.
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln appealed to “The better angels of our nature,” promising “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” He too rooted lyrical rhetoric in muscular policies. Lincoln couldn’t have won the Civil War without being grounded; but Lincoln wouldn’t have been Lincoln without aiming higher.
Theodore Roosevelt built on the Washington-Lincoln foundation. Using the democratic legitimacy stemming from the president’s status as representing “the plain people,” TR became America’s high priest, shaping the nation’s conscience. Once, his publisher George Haven Putnam accused him of sermonizing.
“Yes, Haven, most of us enjoy preaching,” TR confessed, “and I’ve got such a bully” – meaning excellent – “pulpit.”
Inspirational words inspire: to make America truly great, America’s presidents were expansive, not just defensive. As the political scientist Erwin C. Hargrove wrote of Franklin Roosevelt, “His leadership enhanced citizenship.”
FDR understood that moral leaders need not be choirboys. Instead, the presidency offers “a superb opportunity of reapplying, applying in new conditions, the simple rules of human conduct we always go back to.” FDR became the national teacher and preacher, performer and reformer – articulating a values- laden vision. Cynics today mock such aspirational leadership as grandiose. But big-hearted leaders know how far to stretch without breaking the bond with the people; small-minded leaders don’t even try.
Trump has consistently aimed low. His Republican Convention acceptance boast that “nobody knows the system better than me” offered a leadership model of the fox guarding the chicken coop, not an angel propelling us heavenward. Trump’s “America First” defense doesn’t give anyone else a second thought.
Proclaiming “politics is tough” and the “world... an angry place,” he makes everything tougher and angrier.
Rather than the exalted, John Kennedyesque “ask what you can do for your country” tones, which have become the norm at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump is channeling Sergeant Stan Jablonski of the 1980s television series Hill Street Blues
, saying: “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”
The Trump presidency is not only testing Trump but the American people. The Alpine Swift has crash-landed.
Too many Americans, from Left to Right, are acting like pigs, slinging mud, or moles, burrowing ever deeper into their particular partisan tunnels, not noble birds flocking together, seeking to soar. The effect, alas, is toxic, not only within America – but globally.
Trump’s leadership demeans citizenship; shame on so many of us, Left and Right, for racing him to the bottom.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.