I ran for elective office a couple of Tuesdays ago.
I have no doubt the republic will survive my absence from the corridors of power. While I’m far too often full of myself, I’ve never suffered or promoted the delusion that I alone can fix anything.
That said, I’m not sure the republic will survive. Every so often, I feel compelled to say so.
I’m talking about President Trump.
Whenever I write on this theme, I hear from readers who dismiss what I’ve said as the ravings of a liberal. Feel free to dismiss what I say here, but I’m not a liberal in the American political sense. I’m the son of a Goldwater conservative and over the years, I’ve voted for as many Republicans as Democrats. I believe in Jeffersonian limited government that exercises only the power given it by the consent of the governed. I’m a Teddy Roosevelt progressive in that I regard government as an advocate for ordinary citizens against the disproportionate might of the most powerful among us.
I have no doubt that bigots stand and lurk among the president’s followers. I’ve seen them on parade. I am, however, equally certain that many who support the president are intelligent, decent people. I know this because I know them. I’ve talked to them. I don’t understand how they think as they do, but I have no doubt as to the virtue of their intentions or their love of country.
They object to what they regard as the overreach of some government programs. So would my father and sometimes, so do I.
They object when their views on social issues are branded intolerant simply because they’re out of step with contemporary orthodoxies. Even when I don’t agree, their arguments often have merit, and their concerns deserve a hearing and more respect than they’re given. They object to schools’ increasing intrusion into the prerogatives of parents. I’m a teacher, and I do, too.
Some frankly describe the president in the most unflattering terms but consider him the bitter pill they must swallow to enjoy the policy objectives they endorse. Let’s assume for a moment that borrowing over a trillion dollars to fund a tax cut was fiscally sound, that Bret Kavanaugh is worthy to sit on the Supreme Court, that denigrating our allies and launching trade wars around the world constitute sound foreign policy.
Even if every policy were sound, is he worth it?
What are you trading?
What are we risking?
The president’s supporters usually summarize their dissatisfaction under the banner, “I wish he’d stop tweeting.” They excuse his serially offensive statements as his protest against political correctness.
I don’t like political correctness, either. I recognize, though, that words have power, so I try to use language in ways that aren’t unnecessarily offensive. That’s because I’m not trying to stir up avoidable strife.
President Trump doesn’t operate that way. Back when James Monroe was in office, nationalism meant putting the well-being of the nation as a whole above the interests of your region or section. That’s not the meaning it has anymore. If I used the word in its old-fashioned sense and found it was being taken in its 20th century fascist sense, I’d trip all over myself trying to reassure my audience that I meant no such thing and no such offense.
President Trump didn’t do that. He knows the word’s fascist, racist connotation and the reason, which he noted at the time, that people avoid it. When questioned about the encouragement he might give to actual racists by identifying himself as a nationalist, he dismissed the question as “racist.”
Maybe that’s a small thing. But what about his equivalency after Charlottesville and his remarks on the escalator, and his birther campaign and his caravan venom? What about his pernicious, unrelenting incitement of his rally crowds? Are these all small things?
Lincoln appealed to the better angels of our nature. Lyndon Johnson observed that “a president can appeal to the best in our people or the worst.”
Which is President Trump appealing to?
Which are we becoming?
The same Lyndon Johnson, with his vulgar talk and gall bladder scar, was often coarse and offensive, especially when compared to the Kennedys and their famous refined glamour. President Trump’s defenders often similarly write his offensiveness off as a matter of manners and personality. But President Trump’s offenses go well beyond manners. They’re evidence of his character and his narcissism.
It’s a regrettable fact of human nature that people and politicians commonly lie when they feel compelled by circumstance or strategy. Donald Trump, however, lies without blushing — serially, compulsively, transparently, when it’s convenient and inconvenient.
Just today as I write this, for example, I’ve heard him claim not to even know his new acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, whom he’d met with repeatedly in the Oval Office. I also heard the recording of his October statement where he pointedly said, “I know Matt Whitaker well.”
This happens all the time.
If you haven’t noticed, I urge you to pay closer attention. If you have, reflect on what you already know. Count the consequence and cost of excusing his lies and abetting the harm he does the truth.
And that’s not even touching on the tightening ring of indictments, convictions and confessions.
George Washington long ago warned against a future president who would one day attempt to found “his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.” Well-intentioned Trump supporters assure me that even though they tolerate his antics, they won’t allow him to subvert the Constitution.
What if he already is?
Ben Franklin taught us that people who are willing to trade liberty for safety deserve neither. Safety is certainly precious, but Franklin believed, and his own life proved, that, for him, liberty came first.
If even safety pales beside liberty, where in the scheme of things do tax cuts and the next Supreme Court justice rank?
Consider what we’re trading away and what Franklin would say we deserve.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.