Donald Trump has resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a year now—albeit on a strictly part-time basis—and for that reason, I am prepared to finally recognize him as president of these United States.
Like most liberals, I have struggled these past 12 months in truly accepting the legitimacy of the 2016 election—first, because of the ongoing intrigue vis-à-vis Russia, and second, because Donald Trump is a horrible human being who debases the presidency with every breath he takes.
And yet there he sits in the Oval Office and on Air Force One. There his scratchy signature appears on every piece of legislation that flutters across his desk from Congress. And there his portrait hangs on the wall of every federal building in America.
Thus, I can’t dance around it any longer: Trump is my president whether I like it or not, and I regret to inform you, my fellow citizens, that he is your president as well, no matter how emphatically you may proclaim otherwise.
I make this simple and unpleasant point now in light of the two greatest lessons I’ve learned from the first year of the Trump era: First, that nothing is more harmful to public discourse than the erosion of objective truth. And second, that the survival of any nation depends on the health of its core institutions.
On the first point, it has become a matter of public record—most recently in the Washington Post—that Donald Trump is the most pathologically dishonest person to have ever occupied the White House, if not planet Earth. Whether through cynicism or senility, Trump has demonstrated a near-superhuman capacity to exaggerate, distort or deny even the most trivial, Google-able details of his presidency and to dismiss any information he finds inconvenient as “fake news.” By and large, his loyal minions have tagged along for the ride, bequeathing us a society in which the nature of reality itself has become a matter of personal opinion.
The question is: If Trump skeptics insist—correctly—that facts are not subjective or open to debate, doesn’t that include the fact that Trump is lawfully commander-in-chief, vested with certain powers he can exercise as he sees fit? Isn’t declaring him “not my president” or “Putin’s puppet” a mirror image of Republicans’ smearing of Barack Obama as a secret Kenyan whose 2008 election was predicated on a lie? If it was offensive then, why wouldn’t it be offensive now? If we demand acknowledgement of basic truths from our opponents, shouldn’t we also demand it from ourselves?
Yes, we absolutely should, and for most of the time since Trump’s inauguration last January, we have not held up our side of the bargain. We have allowed our visceral, if justified, contempt for America’s 45th chief executive to overwhelm our ability to judge him fairly, or to afford him even a scintilla of institutional respect. In so doing, we have become part of the problem.
The key word here is “institutional,” which brings us to the second takeaway of 2017: the importance of institutions in a stable, functioning democracy, up to and including such American mainstays as a free press, an independent judiciary and, yes, the presidency itself. If Donald Trump has proved the single greatest threat to our country’s loftiest norms and ideals over the last year, the American people have not been that far behind in the running. If Trump’s rotten character has led the United States deep into the moral gutter, the majority of his antagonists have been all too happy to follow, engaging him on his own ugly, puerile terms.
If that seems like an exaggeration, consider how many times the word “shithole” has been uttered in public forums in the two weeks since Trump uttered it at a White House immigration meeting—as if CNN shortening it to “s-hole” would’ve been too confusing to the average viewer. Don’t get me wrong: As someone who worships at the altar of George Carlin, I enjoy filthy language as much as anybody. But if the word “shit” appears more than, say, three times in a single TV news segment, the story is no longer about Trump or immigration—it’s about how much fun it is for pundits to say “shit” and get away with it.
Life under Trump does not have to be this way, and we are not making America great by mimicking all of Trump’s worst instincts. We recently celebrated the birthday of the man who said darkness cannot drive out darkness, yet we continue to behave as if the only way to drive out Trump is to be nearly as obnoxious as he is.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the key to happy living is to treat people better than they deserve, and every now and again that includes the president (read: the presidency) of the United States. Yes, of course Trump is an embarrassment and a disgrace who has no business in public life—let alone the Oval Office—but in the end this isn’t about him. It’s about us. It’s about not letting ourselves be dragged down to his level by surrendering to our lowest and most craven impulses. It’s about retaining our core humanity even when it seems like all hope is lost. It’s about that famous line from Cato—much beloved by George Washington during the Revolution— “Tis not in mortals to command success; but we’ll do more […] we’ll deserve it.”
Michelle Obama put it differently: “When they go low…”
I forget how that line ended.