The position of President of the United States of America is intended for those whom we most esteem – people we hold up to our children as exemplars of all that is best about this beloved country. Just speaking aloud such names as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, or Franklin Roosevelt is to invoke respect and awe…these leaders and many others among our past presidents truly were transformational, and we honor them. Based on such exemplars, we now rightly expect anyone holding this highest office to model the virtues of wisdom and temperance, decency and compassion, empathy and judgment, patience and restraint, and unyielding respect for the human dignity of all persons. In their private lives, and in their business and public transactions, we expect them to be accountable to the core secular ethical standards that underpin the public trust: competence, civility, transparency, honesty, responsibility, consistency, and accountability. We look to their courage and fortitude, we depend on their reliability and honor. We delight if they are witty. They should be patriots in the best sense of that concept – dedicated to upholding the Constitution and being wholly committed to the pursuit of the common good…in which “common” means for everyone. No exceptions.
It is a very high standard, and historically no previous president has scored highly in all respects. Our presidents have not been saints, but their human foibles and modest limitations have made them people we could relate to. And yes, Donald Trump will soon ride to his electoral college victory by having cultivated that populist persona – a flawed man that ordinary folk could relate to. Those attributes are important, but not nearly good enough. At an absolute minimum, the President of the United States must be someone we can trust.
After all, he or she is entrusted by our institutions of governance and our robust body of laws with command of the most potent military in human history, and with control of the nuclear arsenal. He or she represents each one of us and is our ultimate representative on the global stage, and he or she must make decisions that will affect the opportunities, freedoms, health, and prospects for people not only in this country but to some considerable extent people all around the world…and even generations yet to be born. There is no more awesome position on the planet, and yet we are about to install someone into that office who lacks the vision, competence, gravitas, temperament, honesty, respect for others, humility, wisdom, or secular moral integrity essential to the job. The very attempt to visualize Donald J. Trump as the leader of the free world is an outrageous undertaking, but the necessity now to do so portends a perilous reality ahead!
Most of us are holding our collective breath, and hoping that his advisors and other wiser and more competent persons in his circle will keep him (and his intemperate tweets) from damaging our country, its institutions, vulnerable minorities, women, the concept of justice, the planet itself… but as his list of those advisors becomes known, our hopes dwindle and our alarm deepens. From all we have seen so far, we would require an outrageously unrealistic level of optimism to believe that Trump and his hand-picked arch-conservative (and in some cases blatantly racist, homophobic, transphobic, jingoistic, sexist, and arrogant) leadership team are in fact sufficiently competent, wise, and moral enough to run this nation.
Some of us do take refuge in the knowledge that while the office of President is of vital importance, it remains part of a larger and quite resilient democratic environment that we hold even more dear. The incredible experiment in governance known as the United States of America was founded upon venerable (if at times creaky and ineffectual) institutions, and our collective hopes may now be resting with the checks and balances built into that institutional construct. So we cross our fingers, and hope that Donald Trump can be constrained from doing too much harm… but it’s a frail hope, and our crossed fingers are already cramped. We’ve seen more than enough evidence from the election campaign to know who this man is. First, and most corrosive to anyone seeking to claim the office of highest public trust, we know that Trump is a phenomenal liar. His earlier political rival (and a man with his own portfolio of egregious character liabilities) Ted Cruz labeled him as a “pathological liar” (and a narcissist). And that he is. Consider Trump’s assertions that 81 percent of murdered whites are killed by blacks (in reality, 15 percent), that he personally witnessed thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating after 9/11 (he did not, nor did they), that he boasted that he had raised $6 million for veterans in a fundraiser (which he later claimed he never said), and of course his long, unrelenting, and sinister pattern of lies about President Obama’s place of birth (which he finally walked back, but never apologized for). These are but a small example of an outrageously long list of lies. Even Trump’s former lawyer, Thomas M. Wells, said that “the man lies all the time”. And Tony Schwartz, who essentially wrote his book “The Art of the Deal,” told The New Yorker that “Lying is second nature to him”. These are not comforting assessments, coming from two men who know him very well. And now we learn that Trump – even as President-elect – is continuing to promulgate falsehoods and utterly baseless conspiracy theories, in his assertions that millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. Why should we expect him, as President, to tell the truth?
Has America simply given up on the expectation that our presidents ought to be honest? Have we come to the stage where expecting – or even hoping – for honesty from Donald Trump is an absurd and outrageous expectation?
Sadly, I must conclude that the answer is yes. It’s an outrage!
Trump’s commitment to respecting the universal dignity and human rights of others is similarly on shaky ground. The journalist Jennifer Rubin summarized it well:
Aside from his Putin adulation, Trump wants to go “beyond” waterboarding and kill terrorists’ family members, including noncombatant women and children. This would put the United States in violation of international war, turn our military men and women into war criminals and destroy America’s moral standing for years to come. And still the right-wing echo chamber cheers.
Donald J. Trump’s moral compass is either rusty or missing, but we will soon be inaugurating him as our 45th President. It’s nearly incomprehensible, and it is an outrage!
Can we at least discern a thread of secular morality in the President-elect? Not really; from what we’ve seen so far the moral parameters that inform Trump and his emerging group of advisers and designated appointees owe more to the model of authoritarianism, machismo, and the belief that the world is to be managed by one-sided Machiavellian deal-making in which only those who wield the most power prevail. Trump’s moral universe extends – at best – to American citizens and documented immigrants within the geographic boundaries of the United States and any American outposts abroad; anyone outside that map is a lesser creature and of little consequence. As for non-Americans, he has already made it clear that the multitude of human rights abuses carried out with impunity by prominent authoritarians who rule over such countries as Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, and Syria are of little concern to him. Do not look to Trump to defend human rights around the world. Yes I know; his supporters will argue that we have no business being the world’s human rights defender, but in the absence of American leadership the entire global infrastructure of human rights norms and laws stands in jeopardy of collapse. Is that really in America’s interest? Is it in anyone’s interest? Isn’t it outrageous and nearly inconceivable to imagine Donald J. Trump as the defender of Eleanor Roosevelt’s heroic legacy in bringing into being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
So yes, outrage is the appropriate response. Indignation too.
Yet these responses – outrage and indignation – as morally justified as they are, cannot be sustained for four years ahead. The outrage must lead to resistance, to creative and constructive action, and to positive change. In searching for that path, I turn to words written by a 93-year-old German-born Jew who became a French resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor: Stéphane Hessel. After World War II, Hessel went on to serve as Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the UN Commission on Human Rights, where he helped in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was later to serve as France’s U.N. Ambassador:
I wish all of you to find your reason for indignation. This is a precious thing. When outraged, as I was by Nazism, you will become militant, strong, and engaged. You will join the great course of history as it flows toward greater justice, greater freedom – but not the reckless freedom of the fox in the henhouse. In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you encounter someone who is robbed of these rights, pity her, and help her claim those rights.
Here’s to being militant, strong, and engaged!