What would you do if you met Donald Trump face-to-face?
I realize such an encounter is unlikely for us mere mortals. As politicians go, Trump is unusually reticent about close interactions with the public and—being a legendary germaphobe—generally avoids all physical human contact whenever possible.
All the same, the Donald is about to become (or should I say “remain”?) the most ubiquitous person on planet Earth, and thus bound to mingle with some of his 320 million constituents every now and again over the next four-to-eight years.
So it’s worth asking ourselves how we would react if he actually came to our hometown and we were given the chance to speak with him one-on-one. How would we handle him in the flesh, as opposed to when he’s just an image on a screen?
This is no mere rhetorical question. At this moment, Trump is arguably the most hated man in America. For at least 50 percent of the country, he is little more than a disgusting, morally bankrupt buffoon who ought to be walled off from all government buildings—and from all small children—and is deserving of neither our attention nor our respect.
And yet, beginning on January 20, he will be the custodian of the most powerful and indispensable office in the Western world. The presidency of the United States is the centerpiece of the whole American system of government—an institution that transcends the particular characteristics of the person who occupies it at a given moment. As loyal citizens, we are duty-bound to respect the office itself, and to a certain extent—however much we might abhor it—this requires respecting the officeholder as well.
My sense is that most of us instinctively understand this basic rule of civic etiquette when it comes to the commander-in-chief. I am reminded of the classic moment in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon in which one of David Frost’s producers goes on a tirade about how Richard Nixon is a crook and a scumbag, only to shrivel up when he comes nose-to-nose with the man himself—a pricelessly awkward interaction during which he sheepishly grasps Nixon’s hand and mutters, “Mr. President.”
Up to now, that is more or less how civilized people have been expected to behave. Because the president is a figurehead as well as an individual, he is to be treated with a shade more deference than if he were a private citizen, regardless of whether he deserves it or not.
Should Trump be the exception to the rule? Should we adopt as official policy the sarcastic internet meme of treating Trump with “the same respect and courtesy as Republicans have afforded President Obama”? Or, instead, should we take Michelle Obama’s advice and rise above the fray?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m with Michelle. Not because Trump has done anything to earn it (he hasn’t), but simply for the greater good of the country. Because if we succumb to the temptation to sink to Trump’s level of coarseness and depravity, we will be complicit in the cultural moral decline that, once upon a time, the Republican Party was so deathly concerned about preventing.
As well, if the ethical considerations of behaving decently toward the 45th president aren’t persuasive enough for you, there are practical considerations, too.
Several weeks ago, Trump met with a group of editors and reporters at the New York Times, which led columnist Frank Bruni to posit that the president-elect’s most salient characteristic is his desperate need to be loved. As we’ve seen from his innumerable campaign rallies, Trump derives virtually all earthly pleasure from other people’s infatuation with him. Emotionally unbalanced narcissist that he is, he can only be happy when everyone in the room offers their unconditional loyalty and approval. As soon as one dissident appears, his entire sense of self-worth is threatened and he feels he has no choice but to lash out. Just ask Alec Baldwin.
The downsides to having a human mood ring for a president are obvious enough. (See: Russia, puppet of.) But what about the benefits?
Bruni’s inkling—as he explained in depth to Charlie Rose—is that so long as we play along with Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder—namely, by showering him with a steady stream of adulation and over-the-top flattery—we can make him do pretty much anything we want. As with so many fragile would-be authoritarians before him, vanity is his kryptonite. He has become so blinded by self-love within his gilded bubble along Fifth Avenue that whispering sweet nothings into his ear has become the one and only route to his heart and his confidence. Maybe—just maybe—if we began every policy discussion with some bald-faced appeal to his pride and that precious, precious ego, all his usual defenses would fall and we’d have him eating out of the palm of our hand.
Vladimir Putin was evidently an early adopter of this theory, and seems to have played his hand with gusto—as, for that matter, have several other rogue world leaders who can recognize a useful idiot when they see one.
That Trump apparently isn’t in on the joke—that he doesn’t realize he is being manipulated by every petty dictator on Earth—is, for my money, even more alarming than if it were the other way around. He is undoubtedly the most gullible person to have won a national election in my lifetime, and the notion that he values personal compliments more than democracy or human rights is a viscerally sickening thought.
The question is: Are we, his 300-odd million constituents, willing to pull a Mitt Romney by pretending to grovel at his feet in order to win some sort of influence in how the country is run? As Romney himself learned, just because the Donald buys you dinner doesn’t mean he’s going to take you home for the night.
Accordingly—and in all likelihood—the next four years are a no-win situation for those of us who are not already loyal foot soldiers for America’s führer-in-waiting. To him, everyone else is merely a means to an end, and therefore completely disposable as soon as their narrow purpose has been served.
If playing nice with him means he listens to you for a few extra seconds, maybe it’s worth sacrificing a piece of your dignity for the greater good of society. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you won’t pay for it in the end. As the West memorably learned in 1938, once you offer a dictator half of Czechoslovakia, it’s only a matter of time before he comes marching back in pursuit of all of Western Europe.