Whether you like President Trump’s policies or not, the one characteristic of his presidency that has been inexcusably destructive has been his unwillingness to consistently attempt to be a president of all the people. I’m not referring here to industrial, economic, immigration or environmental policies. I’m not referring to taxation, energy, campaign finance, or gun control policies. Across America, we can all legitimately hold differing viewpoints about those matters.
No, what I am referring to is the requirement for every American president to attempt – with some degree of consistency – to rally this diverse nation into a population that feels we have some shared stake in the health of both the country and its citizenry. That we all have a stake in the success of America, that we all are involved in building something bigger than ourselves.
The presidential obligation – the “requirement” – to lead in this way is not written down anywhere. It is a requirement that has been understood and embraced by every American president in the long line of presidents back to George Washington. Certainly there have been presidents who have singled out specific groups in society and made them the focus of attention. There are many examples of this. American presidents have developed policies against slaveowners, robber barons, corporate polluters and monopolists.
But in casting aspersions on these and similar groups, and in generating popular resentment against them, the presidents had in every case identified a retrograde interest intent on doing harm to the general public interest of the country. By rallying public sentiment against forces that would profit from exploitation of the citizenry – both Republican and Democratic individuals – past presidents have defended democracy and the ideals of the nation. And against forces that would damage or divide the nation, presidential rhetoric at least – if not actual policies – has almost always sided with “the people,” all the people.
But what President Trump has done repeatedly for three years, and is still doing today during the coronavirus pandemic, is significantly different. He deliberately and actively divides the people against themselves. And that is poisonous to the creation of citizen solidarity, and antithetical to the critical, foundational ideals of democracy and our nation. Trump’s consistent rhetoric against Democratic states and Democratic governors undermines the notion that – especially against the COVID pandemic – we are all in this fight together. His rhetoric amounts to presidential malpractice.
When Trump casts aspersions on the Democratic governors, legislatures, and states of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, for example, he isn’t merely criticizing their policies. With his name-calling, insults, deliberate distortions and lies, he is calling into question the legitimacy of the leaders of those states. With his encouragement of citizens to take to the streets in protest of “stay-at-home” rules and guidelines, he is undermining the safety and order that those states have determined that they need. And at the most basic level, he is encouraging ordinary citizens to put themselves at risk of contracting coronavirus in the crowds that are gathering in demonstrations.
Trump tweets, “Liberate Michigan,” “Liberate Minnesota,” and “Liberate Virginia.” Liberate them from what? Their duly elected governors? The pandemic? The safety measures put in place? Well, egged on by President Trump, Fox News, and talk-radio, the demonstrators gather in front of the governors’ homes and chant, “End this lockdown.”
The demonstrators may be mostly Republican, but they are citizens first. And President Trump encourages them to view their state governments not as trying their best to help the entire citizenry in difficult times, but as an enemy to be defied. His rhetoric alienates people from their governments, and divides them from their fellow citizens. His rhetoric encourages people to measure social distancing and the shutdown of the economy not as responses to a health crisis, but as assaults on their liberty. He wants to make the economy and the pandemic into partisan issues. He thus splits the citizenry and undermines the solidarity the country needs to most effectively contain the spread of the COVID infection.
Trump’s divisive speaking certainly makes it harder to observe consistent precautions against the virus. Does it matter for anything else though? Can you be happy with his policies and just dismiss his words as a distracting sideshow?
No, you really can’t. His manner, his coarseness, and his repudiation of any obligation to be a president for all Americans are relevant and connected to much that is broken in our society, and to much that has been breaking for forty years. Trump’s attitudes are of a piece with the 40-year growth of hyperindividualism and the economic and taxation policies that have created the gross financial disparities across society that the coronavirus is laying so bare now.
Before the virus hit, we were already a country in deep trouble. We were badly polarized and we had an unsustainable economy, one built on the idea that our nation could prosper without regard for the half of the citizenry that was just getting by. After the virus, we’ll need to make a new country, one that recognizes that we are our brother’s keeper. President Trump does not believe in that principle, and if we reelect him in November, it will demonstrate that we are a citizenry that will not be capable of imagining and creating the new world that we need.
Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is author of “Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face.” Contact him at email@example.com.