The handwringing over Trump besmirching the ‘dignity’ of the White House tells us that style, in the minds of pundits, will always win out over substance
“Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the presidency a little more,” David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, wrote recently, speaking for the not-insignificant faction of the country horrified by a president who tweets hatefully about Mika Brzezinski and shares a video of himself body-slamming a man with a CNN logo for a head.
The hallowed office of the presidency, dignity-drenched for a couple of centuries, is now held captive by a reality show star, so uncouth and erratic. “When,” Remnick wonders, “has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak?”
Following Donald Trump’s latest Twitter rampages, this is again the central preoccupation of the people who not only didn’t vote for Trump but who earn their livings cataloging, analyzing and broadcasting his every move to the portion of the nation that will listen, the mass not yet ready to lead a chant of “CNN sucks” inside a multi-purpose midwestern arena.
Trump’s behavior being beneath the “dignity” of his office has been one of the chief criticisms of his presidency, a bipartisan lament engaging all kinds of inside-the-Beltway creatures, some more well-meaning than others.
Remnick and his sympathizers aren’t necessarily wrong. Trump does act like a boor, use the vocabulary of grade-schooler, and show little interest in acquiring the deep working knowledge needed to govern the most supremely-armed superpower on Earth. There are many reasons to despise his presidency. No one quite like Trump has ever climbed so high.
“My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!” Trump boasted in a recent tweet. He isn’t wrong. He is president and what he does is by definition “presidential.” He is free to redefine the term. A victor can have his spoils.
What matters more is what he does with his mighty powers and how many people he hurts. The handwringing over Trump besmirching the “dignity” of his office ignores what’s really going on. It tells us style, in the minds of pundits, will always win out over substance.
To listen to Remnick and others tell it, the country would be better off if only Trump stopped acting like such an uncultured, impulsive slob. If only he comported himself elegantly, used larger and prettier words, spoke in a pleasing baritone and playacted like the real pros who came before him. If only he was Hollywood’s idea of a president, equally polite and portentous, grave when he needed to be, soothing otherwise.
Trump is deeply unpopular overseas. He doesn’t conform to any nation’s idea of a dignified leader. But what is dignity anyway? Did George W Bush invade Iraq with dignity? Was Franklin Roosevelt dignified when he locked up Japanese families for the crime of not being white? Was Harry Truman dignified when he gave the orders to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians with two atomic bombs? How dignified was Woodrow Wilson when he segregated the federal government and threw a civil rights leader out of the White House?
Imagine, for a moment, a Republican president as beholden to oligarchs as Trump, a president who wanted to demolish Obamacare, block Muslims from coming to this country, strip away environmental regulations and stack the supreme court with as many generation-defining conservatives as humanely possible.
Imagine this president as someone who only tweeted anodyne things, never lost his cool, and used the vocabulary of a college professor, or at least a fairly competent high school English teacher. How better off would our country be?
This is the crux of it all, what so many beleaguered pundits wish for in the dead of night, their heads bowed in prayer for the end of the Trump madness. Can’t a president just punish us nicely? The savior could emerge, maybe someone who appreciates a good book and a fine scotch and likes talking less and doing more.
The savior will look and sound something like Mike Pence, and he will, with great dignity, kill civilians overseas and brutalize the poor and marginalized back home.
But the president as benign paternalist is no more. This fiction overshadowed the reality of America, which functions more like a balkanized, fading empire of incongruous nation-states than the unified country schoolbook mythology has taught us is our heritage.
Your governor, state senator or small-town mayor has much more power to ruin your life, and always has. A nationalized media obsessed all hours of the day and night with the presidency obscures this truth and tell us to regard Trump tweetstorms as things imbued with far more relevance than an underfunded school system, a broken bridge or a predatory healthcare matrix.
If your one-bedroom apartment in a public housing development is rife with asbestos, or opioids are ravaging your town, or endless wars are leading your loved ones to die in remote lands, who cares about how dignified the president is?
For those not living so precariously, there is time to fret about how an office gets demeaned. For people with the money and freedom to gallivant on European vacations, or just those with some actual stake in the global order, Trump undermining the dignity of the presidency abroad is a real and tangible thing.
But understand this: a lot of people just don’t care, and have no good reason to.