Trump the president the Founding Fathers feared
Has there ever been a president as obscene as Donald Trump — a president as obtuse, as ignorant, as base, as dishonest, as indifferent to precedent, as contemptuous of civil liberties, as critical of his own government and officials, as brutish, as cold to consequences, as hostile to the media, as casually racist and as self-centered? The answer is no. For comparisons, you have to look abroad.
Ah, but we are admonished from doing that. This is America, and it is special, and it does not swoon for demagogues. It has gone through hard times, sure — the Civil War and the Great Depression and the Red Scare following World War I and the Russian Revolution, and the McCarthy period following the onset of the Cold War. It has done terrible things to the Indians, enslaved blacks and thereafter remained exuberantly racist both in custom and law. It incarcerated Japanese-Americans and for a time was so deeply anti-Semitic that it turned its back on frantic Jews fleeing extermination. But overall — and especially when compared to lots of other countries — we have been downright marvelous. And so we insist.
But did you see Trump at his rallies in Tampa, Florida and Wilkes-Barre, Pa.? The usual litany of lies and invective and the standard slander of the press were upped a notch. This time it was more personal. “Horrible, horrendous people,” he said of reporters in Pennsylvania. “Fake, fake, disgusting news,” he said of their product. CNN’s Jim Acosta was menaced by the crowd in Tampa. It stood behind him chanting “CNN sucks” and the president not only did not call for order — did not, in other words, act presidential — but later when his son Eric tweeted a picture of it all, Trump retweeted his approval.
There has never been anything like this in America. We have suffered the occasional regional or third-party fool running for president — the racists Strom Thurmond and George C. Wallace come to mind. No president has ever held the rallies Trump has. The outpouring of venom, the toying with violence gives them an old newsreel cast. We have seen such faces here, contorted in the ecstasy of hate. Yes, in 1957 when nine black kids enrolled in Little Rock’s Central High School. Yes, nine years later when Martin Luther King Jr. took his movement to Chicago. It has taken Trump to revive the face of American hate.
The president’s party has fallen into line. His press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to say if she agrees that the media is “the enemy of the people” — Trump’s term of deep totalitarian provenance. But from much of the GOP came cowed silence. Trump has transformed the GOP into an updated Know-Nothing Party — anti-immigrant, for sure, but anti-science as well. Few dare criticize him. Those who do face defeat in primaries, and those who don’t vie for his endorsement. Northern liberals once trafficked with Southern segregationists, but this is different. This is now.
Trump has debased the presidency. He has removed America from its moral and practical leadership role in world affairs. Like a bratty kid, he has spitballed foreign leaders — Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron — mocking them for their principles. Yet he has nothing bad to say about Vladimir Putin, the neo-Romanov ruler of Russia and soon, maybe, of the so-called “Little Russians” as well. Ukraine, beware.
He has resumed the exploitation of the wilderness and the pollution of the environment. Above all, he has polluted our politics. The swamp he vowed to drain is now fetid with even more lobbyists and rancid with his lies. He said he would make America great again, but he has reduced it in influence and conducted his presidency in a manner we have never seen before.
Donald J. Trump is a new kind of American president, the sort the Founding Fathers feared. America once again has a mad king.
Richard Cohen writes a column for the Washington Post.