Look at this: You, David Brooks, Rod Dreher (who we both struggle with),and I agree: Trump’s effort at witness intimidation, tweeted at James Comey, is a line that Congress cannot ignore, paling only in comparison to his reckless neediness on display when he gave away security secrets to Russia.
Both events this week indicate not merely a thuggish approach to the office of the presidency but also prove the impossibility of ever conducting politics in good faith with Donald Trump. Trump, always a projector, accused Obama of surveilling him, but Trump’s tweet seems to suggest that he think it’s perfectly acceptable to surreptitiously record others, and former associates have said that this is, in fact, business as usual for Trump. His carelessness with sensitive information reveals that that he has no respect for vulnerable allies. That Trump doesn’t think this is a problem isn’t a surprise: he’s never loved freedom, civil liberties, the Constitution, the law, or even just the norms of political life. He has never demonstrated true respect for others or care for them. He lacks enough knowledge of history to understand how this abuse of power echoes Watergate or how it endangers lives. That Congressional Republicans are not acting swiftly is what is more telling (and repulsive). Never believe Republicans when they tell you that the party believes in the rule of law.
What I found most interesting about your posts questioning Trump’s fitness for office, though, was that you said that you were now open to impeachment talk. I appreciate your caution, though I’ve not shared it. (I think Trump’s violations of the emoluments clause were already clear enough to warrant action.) It reminded me of a recent post by historian John Fea, who writes the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home. A member of the faculty at Messiah College, Fea warns us against claiming that every president in our era is the worst president in history. History is long, of course, and how we rank people depends on our own position. Andrew Jackson was terrible for Native Americans, Andrew Johnson for African Americans, George W. Bush for the people of Iraq. Any president in the nuclear age is potentially more dangerous than any who had power before the invention of such weapons, so an even-tempered Barack Obama has more potential for harm than the feisty Teddy Roosevelt or the lazy Warren G. Harding. In short, how we rank a president depends on a lot of criteria, including some that change frequently. (Obama looks pretty good right now to a lot of people, but if history shows that his commitment to neoliberal economic policies led to the despair that pushed voters toward Trump, how we he be ranked then?)
Years ago, I purchased a set of presidential playing cards at the Smithsonian. I wondered at the conversations that the designers must have had as they picked who to assign which card to. Kennedy was the king of hearts and Nixon the ace of spades, which were pretty easy, I imagine, to assign, but how to rank those whose legacies are both impressive and awful–Jefferson’s radical belief in democracy as measured against the fact that he bought and sold human beings? FDR’s leadership during World War II and his invention of the welfare state (making him a savior or a devil, depending on your view) during a time when he was also interning American citizens in prison camps? LBJ’s effort to eradicate American poverty and insure that older Americans could live in dignity while also bombing Viet Nam?
If no US president (sorry Carter fans!) has a record free of the deliberate killing of innocents, does this mean that the job itself cannot be carried out without unnecessary violence. (The answer for many of my Mennonite friends is yes, which is why they can’t in good conscience vote.) And if that is the case, should we ever honor any president? Can you imagine, on a personal level, excusing the violent actions that our presidents have undertaken because of a person’s good behavior? (“Sure, Tom enslaved his own children, but he was a product of his times. We can’t really expect anything else.” “Maybe William took us into a war that killed 200,000 Filipino civilians, but he did it because he wanted to build a naval superpower and there was just no other way to get that done.” “Okay, I’ll admit that Bill accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia, but his heart was in the right place!”)
Above, talk show host Ellen Degeneres shares a sideways hug with former president George W. Bush, who has been able to rehabilitate his legacy, despite foreign policies that have killed more than a million people. He’s just like your grandpa, if your grandpa killed 5% of the Iraqi population.
Any praise we give any president is tainted by survivor’s bias. Those of us who live because a past president did not enslave, annihilate, or degrade our ancestors have a duty to remember those who were killed: the more than 300,000 enslaved Africans brought to America as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the more than 70,000 Japanese killed in a single day when Truman dropped the atomic bomb, the 20% of the civilian population decimated (No, that word is wrong–it means 1/10 of the population. Truman’s leadership killed twice as many. We have no word for that kind of horror.) in North Korea when he waged war there, the more than 100 civilians killed by drone strikes under Obama. It’s easy to claim that Trump is the worst if we ignore the 1 million Iraqis dead under George W. Bush.
Is Trump a thug? For sure, but we knew that when we elected him. Is he guilty of crimes against humanity? Maybe not yet, but if he’s anything like most of our presidents, he will be.