As a schoolboy, George Washington transcribed 110 Jesuitical maxims later published as Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. In this pamphlet he counsels a regimen of behaviour so meticulous it forbids blowing on a spoonful of soup to cool it and specifies the proper method for dipping bread in sauce. Presidential mores have travelled three centuries and a few hundred degrees south since then to bring us Donald Trump, who not only disregards his predecessor’s instruction to ‘use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curse nor revile’ but serves as a snarling, swaggering rebuke to any notion of presidential decorum.
‘Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?’ the President is reported to have demanded during a meeting on immigration reform. While his critics have seized on ‘shithole’ as racist, his offence lies elsewhere: the word ‘why.’ In asking such a question, Trump shows his ignorance of the American project. When the Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop pledged it would be ‘a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us’. Speaking 360 years later, Ronald Reagan affirmed his belief in a shining city ‘teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace… And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.’ America is the other Zion. Next year in San Antonio.
The American Dream is not about the standing of nations but the character of individuals. Anyone can become an American who is willing to work hard, defend the republic, and cherish the Constitution. America is laws and dreams, not blood and soil. Americans, de Tocqueville observed, ‘have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man… [and] consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent’.
Trump believes in permanency, the stasis of race and ethnic origin. He speaks of ‘the blacks’, ‘the Hispanics’, ‘the Latinos’ because that is how he sees them first and foremost, as minorities rather than Americans. Teddy Roosevelt railed against ‘hyphenated Americanism’ but Trump’s definite article Americanism is more likely to lead the US to ‘a tangle of squabbling nationalities’. That he lacks the tone and temperament of a Commander in Chief we knew long before he set foot in the Oval Office. What he has demonstrated since is an extraordinary ignorance of the American ideal. The rabble-rouser who cast doubt on Obama’s birthplace is himself the least American president in American history.
Trump’s defenders say that he’s right, and such godforsaken places are indeed shitholes. Then come the excusers who assure you that, while of course they don’t agree with the President’s remarks, he was just saying what ordinary Americans think. He wasn’t, but even if he were, it is the President’s job to lead, not to pander. We also hear that such language is blue collar straight-talk, to be expected from a product of Queens in the Fifties. But Trump is a product of Jamaica Estates and boarding school; he’s hardly Archie Bunker, living in a two-bedroom semi in Astoria and bickering with Bea Arthur.
Conservatives reached for the smelling salts when Barack Obama saluted two Marines while holding a cup of coffee and were fit to be tied when he bowed before KSA’s King Abdullah. Obama sometimes seemed to treat the office with a cool detachment, as if he was slumming it while waiting for a better gig. He also prated about the need for more respect in politics, by which he meant that his opponents needed to agree with him or shut up, while his own tongue ran sharp and free. Compared to his successor, however, he looks like a model of Hamiltonian restraint.
The man who promised to ‘make America great again’ has instead made it louder, coarser, and angrier. He has made America a country where parents have to switch off the news because the President might be on and the children are still up. He has debased the office, reduced its claim on reverence and awe, and turned it into a presidential shithole. Trump is not permanent; America will change again soon enough. Do not be worn down into cynicism before then. Remember Washington’s final rule: ‘Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.’