Most presidents, when they have won an election, stop campaigning and start governing. Donald Trump, however, has grown addicted to the adulation of his hand-picked crowds. As a result, he has never left the campaign trail, although now he travels in Air Force One, and taxpayers foot the bill.
“Sometimes they say ‘he doesn’t act presidential,” he said to a crowd in Youngstown, Ohio in July, “And I say, ‘look, great schools, smart guy, it is so easy to act presidential.’ But that’s not going to get it done. In fact, I said – it is much easier, by the way, to act presidential than what we are doing here tonight, believe me.“
“[W]ith the exception of the late great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that has ever held this office, that I can tell you,” he proclaimed.
So what does it take to be presidential. It takes experience, of course, and judgment, and high-level connections. It takes a lot of energy, too. Being presidential, tough, begins with character, and most of all depends on three qualities where Trump, alas, falls short: Intellect, dignity, and integrity.
“I love the poorly educated!” crowed Donald Trump during his primary election campaign. His own education tends to back him in this.
As an unruly teen, he was sent to New York Military Academy. “I did very well under the military system,” Trump said in an interview. “I became one of the top guys at the whole school.” Even then, he was The Donald. At NYMA he seems to have learned command, if not discipline.
After NYMA he attended Fordham University in the Bronx, so he could remain close to the family real estate business. There he languished for two years before his father plucked him out and packed him off to Philadelphia and the Ivy league.
Despite his claim to have graduated first in his class from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Trump appears to have been an undistinguished scholar there.
“Donald agreed to attend Wharton for his father’s sake,” wrote biographer Jerome Tuccille in 1985. “He showed up for classes and did what was required of him, but he was clearly bored and spent a lot of time on outside business activities.” Donald himself wrote in 1989’s The Art of the Deal, “I decided that as long as I had to be in college, I might as well test myself against the best.”
Trump graduated from Wharton’s undergraduate degree program in 1968. He never attended the prestigious Graduate School of Business there, nor ever earned an MBA (or any other advanced degree).
The 1968 commencement program does not list Trump as having received graduating honors of any kind. Numerous profiles have since asserted that he was first in his class, though Donald has denied ever having made this claim. He boasted, in a 2011 interview on CNN, “Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country.”
On education, Trump’s message and his substance (if such a word can be applied to him) are a bit out of joint.
Decency is a seriously overburdened word. It involves adherence to standards of propriety, but carries a burden of fairness (a decent wage), generosity (very decent of you), modesty (are you decent?), and suitablity (I haven’t got a decent pair of shoes).
At the heart of the concept is empathy. Decent people know and respect the needs and feelings of others. Empathy is not Trump’s strong suit, leaving him decency-impaired.
In 1980, while clearing the historic Bonwit Teller building from the site where Trump Tower was to rise, he hired a company that used undocumented Polish window washers to clear away demolition debris. They worked off the books; no income taxes or FICA taxes were withheld, no pension provided, no records kept at all. Their worksite was so dangerous that Trump himself would not go there. “You have to be very brave to be in a building under demolition. I’m not sure I’m that brave.” Yet they were issued no hard hats or other protective equipment. For grueling 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, they were paid sub-minimal wages only sporadically, if they were paid at all. They were threatened with deportation if they complained. Is this the behavior of a decent man?
Consider his infamous pussy tape: In an interview with Billy Bush for Access Hollywood, with tape rolling, Trump bantered about soap star Arianne Zucker, with whom he was preparing to appear on Days of Our Lives. “I better use some Tic Tacs” says Trump, “just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” There may be a glimmer of empathy here, since he seemed to want to spare Ms. Zucker from his halitosis; more likely he wanted to save himself from a reputation for bad breath. Would a decent man have said these things?
Perhaps Trump’s lack of decency is most apparent in his reaction the his party’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Since its inception in 2010, the number of Americans without healthcare coverage has plummeted, the denial of coverage to people with ‘pre-existing’ conditions has gone away, and the utilization of preventive services (screening, vaccination and the like) has soared. Lives have been extended, and the quality of life for many has improved. A pall of fear has been lifted.
The “skinny repeal” bill, which would have ended most of this while offering nothing to the children and the poor who would be cast out on their own. When it failed in a Senate skittish about screwing its own constituents, Trump immediately took up his phone to tweet: “As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!”
Those who are watching have noticed that he has not stood passively by to let ObamaCare implode. He has taken action to ensure that it happens, using taxpayer dollars intended to educate users of their options under the legislation to lobby against it instead, and threatening to end the subsidies (he calls them “bailouts”) make coverage affordable to the poor, and the disadvantaged middle class, at a time when they need reinforcement instead.
(“As I said from the beginning” is a lie, by the way. In the beginning he promised to repeal and replace on the same day, the same hour even. “We are nor going to let people die in squalor, because we are Republicans“, he told NBC’s Chuck Todd)
For Trump to say “Let ObamaCare implode” so he can gain advantage in a deal reveals a shocking disregard for the millions whose very lives depend on it, and the tens of millions more whose financial security depends on it. Many of these are children or elderly, and some are disabled. Some will be turned out of nursing homes. The burden will be borne disproportionately by minorities.
Is this how a decent man puts America first?
Long before he became our 16th president, while still an attorney practicing in Springfield, Illinois, Honest Abe Lincoln would advise the young clerks who aspired to be lawyers: “Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”
The first thing schoolchildren learn about Lincoln it is often the tale of how, as a clerk, when he discovered he had shortchanged a customer a few pennies, he had closed up shop and trudged for miles to set things right. The first they hear of George Washington is the story of the cherry tree, and how he could never tell a lie. In their presidents, patriotic Americans esteem integrity above all else.
How, then, did we elect a president for whom deceit, and persistence in a manifest lie, is a high art and a source of pride? Who plays fast and loose with the rules of ethics and the bounds of nepotism. Who rants against the very separation of powers, and the checks and balances, that the founders so carefully designed to keep our government safe from the despot he aspires to be? Who dismisses his sketchy past with a ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ shrug?
Trump did not invent the political lie. Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook!” comes to mind, and Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” But Trump brings to the game a disregard for what we previously regarded as truth that is so profound as to suggest he sees no practical distinction between the lies that serve him and the facts in the world at large—his ‘alternative facts’ are founded in expediency rather than verifiability.
Trump’s flaunting of ethics standards, both traditional and black-letter law, is legendary after only six months I office. His eagerness to leverage his presidency for personal profit, scoffing at the emoluments clause; his packing of his inner advisory circle with members of his family, generals and plutocrats; and the satisfaction he seems to derive from sowing disharmony among friend and foe alike, do not reflect a man of integrity. His constant flouting of the wisdom and sage experience of his advisors in favor of his own boisterous id, with its fits and snits and wee-hour tweets, is the sign of a spoiled child. A nine-year-old boy could be forgiven for such behaviors. A seventy-year-old man, who commands the most powerful military the world has ever known while he faces an uncertain world, can not.
Donald believes that when he does not appear presidential, it is not his fault. It is a shortcoming of appearance, not substance, and the fault lies in the beholder. Such ideas are promulgated by a press held captive by a world hostile to him, and the Democratic Party, which is still reeling from their epic and humiliating loss at his hands. It is fake news.
“Now here’s what I do. I’d ask whether or not you someday think I will be on Mount Rushmore,” Trump said. “But here’s the problem, if I did it joking, totally joking, having fun, the fake news media will say ‘he believes he should be on Mount Rushmore.’
“So, I won’t say it. Okay? I won’t say it.”
“. . . They’ll say it anyway, you watch: ‘Trump thinks he should be on Mount Rushmore. Isn’t that terrible?'”
I’ll tell you what’s terrible, Don. Your Freudian slip is showing.