If Donald Trump had appeared at France's Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial for a Saturday event honoring World War I dead, it wouldn't have been remarkable. The planet would not have tilted differently on its axis had he showed up at Arlington National Cemetery on Veteran's Day and stood and swayed and hummed along to the National Anthem, either. And if he'd tele-prompted his way through some grave remarks about the shooting and fires that hit California like biblical plagues in the past week, likewise, those words would have been forgotten before the smoke cleared.
Trump didn't do any of those things. He skipped the French ceremony because the wet weather supposedly made travel by helicopter impossible, leaving critics to ask why his aides couldn't figure out alternatives. His initial response to the wildfires was to tweet a characteristically nasty and factually dubious statement about how the state should manage its forests better. He at least tweeted his sympathies to the victims of the shooting, but White House adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared on Fox News and sounded a somewhat caustic note when she said, “You know how this goes" in response to a question about the shooting aftermath. On Monday, while the country was commemorating Veterans Day, Trump wasn't scheduled to attend any public events, and spent the day at home in White House and tweeting speculatively about how the Democrats were hurting the stock market. (He did also tweet a video of himself delivering remarks at another World War I memorial event.)
None of this was exactly damning, at least in comparison with some of Trump's more outrageous behavior. But it underscored how lazy the president is, and showed us what direction he's dragging the country in. It's not a good one.
Trump obviously has an aversion to the routine prestige of being the most powerful man in the world. He hasn't visited any American troops overseas—despite being outspokenly pro-military—because, he told the AP recently, he's "very busy." He became the first president since Ronald Reagan to skip the White House Correspondents Dinner, and Reagan only missed it because he had just been shot by a would-be assassin. And where most presidential-caliber politicians invoke "bipartisanship" and unity anytime they can, Trump spends his energy decrying his haters and stoking fears—even in his inaugural address, he bemoaned what he called "American carnage."
This is the squishiest part of Trump's presidency, the trickiest to evaluate. Didn't Barack Obama deliver speech after speech about the greatness of America and how we can accomplish impossible tasks? Eight years of that didn't stop the country from being so warped by rage and cable news that it elected a reality show host president. Replacing Obama's rhetoric with Trump's smirking, it stands to reason, shouldn't make much of a difference.
But the president's words matter, if for no other reason than that they send other politicians and pundits scurrying to fashion their own narratives. The chief executive's attitudes can trickle down to the rest of the country and set a toxic tone. Trump's well-known pettiness has created mountains out of personal beefs—witness the recent banning of CNN reporter Jim Acosta from White House press briefings over an exhaustively dissected video of Acosta pulling a microphone away from a White House aide. (CNN is now suing the White House in response to that ban.) Meanwhile, a Trump-supporting congressman who assaulted a reporter last year, lied to cops about it, and was subsequently praised by the president won re-election last week. Or think about all the other Republicans who have embraced Trump's tactic of crying voter fraud without evidence. Trump's refusal to denounce white supremacists has no doubt emboldened racists, and his railing against the caravan of migrants headed slowly toward the US from Central America likely helped fuel wall-to-wall media coverage of that non-threat.
Trump's general disrespect is surely less harmful than his race-baiting, but that, too, seems to has trickled down. Not that politics pre-Trump was a debating society, but now people gather outside his rallies to scream abuse at each other; at least one rally during the campaign turned into a literal brawl. Perhaps every politician has a strain of supporters who believe vile things, but Trump is unique in encouraging his fans' worst instincts. Who else would have even tolerated the "lock her up" chants that have become routine at Republican events?
Importantly, none of this nastiness is particularly connected to any sort of policy agenda. Strip away Trump's carnival barker persona and what's left is an unimaginative domestic Republican agenda of tax cuts and regulation slashing, coupled with a pro-authoritarian foreign policy. But if Roman emperors stayed in power thanks to bread and circuses, many Trump supporters seem much more attracted to the circuses side of the equation. “I don’t care whether Trump wins or not," one of his fans confessed during the campaign to a National Review writer. "I just want him to fuck things up as long as he can.”
That might be an attractive message for a presidential candidate, but you want an actual president to stop fucking things up at some point. As corny as it sounds, a president is supposed to instill some sort of pride in citizens, the sort of pride that comes from knowing that there are serious, respectable people somewhere doing serious, respectable things. One measure of Trump's failure on this score is that a record-low 47 percent of Americans were "extremely proud" of their country, according to a Gallup poll this summer. Another measure is that this week Saturday Night Live got praised lavishly for apologizing for making fun of a Republican politician with an eyepatch. You know the country is badly starved for bipartisanship when SNL is getting those kinds of kudos.
"You know how easy it is to be presidential?" Trump asked a Pennsylvania crowd in March. "But you'd all be out of here by now. You'd be so bored." He then stood up unnaturally straight, and dropped into a stilted, mock-presidential voice: "I'm very presidential. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here tonight." He delivered a dull endorsement of the candidate he was campaigning for, then wrapped it up by saying, "And then you go, 'God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you very much,'" before jokingly tottering like a penguin away from the podium. It was sort of a funny imitation of a president, only the actual president was doing it.
It's not surprising that a man who got rich thanks to inheritance and tax evasion and got famous for being a rich asshole does not have a huge amount of reverence for the office he now holds. Trump's presidency has in many ways been predictable. Of course he bails on his job to golf. Of course his press shop is brazenly dishonest. Of course he gets into weird arguments with veterans over Apocalypse Now. Of course he demands military parades and then cancels them. Of course he nonsensically promises a pre-midterm tax cut he can't possibly deliver. And of course he's spinning conspiracy theories about voter fraud.
For all the talk of his racism and lying and bush-league authoritarianism, Trump is also, much more fundamentally, a blowhard in way over his head. Trump's bad impression of a president is causing the country to slip further into a fugue state of endless bickering and bad faith and viciousness. The US is led by a lazy, ignorant narcissist, and we won't know what kind of damage that will do to us until it's over.
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