President of the United States is a special office. Unlike the constitutional monarchs or prime ministers of European and other systems, the president is neither head of state exclusively nor head of government, but performs both roles — fusing two aspects of national leadership, symbolic and substantive, in a single person.
The Founders of this country anticipated, in short, that the president would not just execute national laws but also set a national tone. They understood that obedience to written laws could only do so much to perpetuate a republic; citizens would have to follow unwritten norms of civic virtue as well, and would be more likely to do so if their leaders modeled them. They designed the presidency with their epitome of personal integrity and decency, George Washington, in mind.
The great fear of these early Americans was that the presidency could fall into the hands of a demagogue: someone like the current incumbent, Donald Trump, whose impact on the nation’s political culture over the past three-plus years has been, if anything, more damaging than his impact on public policy. Where past occupants of the office have at least paid lip service to its inspirational aspects, and where both of his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, actively campaigned on themes of unity, Mr. Trump lives by a different credo: “When someone attacks me, I always attack back . . . except 100x more.” This is a formula for upwardly spiraling conflict. Consistent with it, Mr. Trump has used the bully pulpit — magnified by social media — to debase public discourse.
He has broken taboos — against personal insults, questioning the motives of one’s opponents and delegitimizing the political process itself — that historically enabled Americans to compromise when it is possible and to co-exist when it is not. Think of it: From the highest office in the oldest electoral democracy on the planet, he has referred to the free press as “truly the enemy of the people,” and repeatedly spread the canard that the next election will be “rigged.” Earlier this month, Mr. Trump broadcast to the entire world, on Twitter, this about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) of New York: “Cuomo killed 11,000 people in nursing homes alone. Crooked & Incompetent!” The remark was typical — not even close to his basest outburst while in office.
This is a president who does not so much govern the country as harass it. In fact, the flow of invective is so constant that it can become overwhelming, almost numbing — but must not be normalized just the same. This is especially true with respect to his repeated use of xenophobic, racist and misogynistic themes and tropes. Amid times of tension and disorder, where other presidents would call for calm, he traffics in violent words (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”). On one notorious occasion in 2017 — doubly shocking to recall in light of subsequent events, including the death of George Floyd under a policeman’s knee — Mr. Trump told an audience of law enforcement officers on Long Island: “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, and I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ ”
No postwar president even approached this level of conduct unbecoming the position he holds. Even at his nastiest, Richard M. Nixon generally saved ugly comments about his political foes, the media and minority ethnic groups for the privacy of the Oval Office. Mr. Trump pursues overt incivility consciously, with the aims of dividing the country and enforcing loyalty within the Republican Party he has taken over, by implicating its leaders in his transgressive behavior. The harassment and bullying extend beyond U.S. borders: previous presidents have, at times, demonized U.S. enemies, but Mr. Trump has aimed demeaning language at the leaders of friendly foreign nations, such as the prime minister of Canada — Canada! — whom he labeled “very dishonest and weak.”
There was a time, during the election year of 2016, when it was still possible — barely — to suppose that actual possession of the presidency, and its awesome responsibility, might temper Mr. Trump. That is obviously false now. Patriotic Cabinet members and staff who agreed to serve in his administration early on with similar hopes have long since quit or been dismissed. What surround the president now are apologists, reduced to explaining away his offensive words and deeds, when they don’t ignore them. This includes a long list of Republican senators who have themselves been the target of his venom in the past, but were subsequently brought to heel.
In politics, as in other areas of life, standards are far easier to destroy than to establish. By showing that name-calling and vendetta-pursuing “work,” in the narrow sense of short-term political gain, and by licensing his opponents to respond in kind, Mr. Trump has set precedents that will be difficult to undo. The necessary condition of reversing the damage to the nation’s civic fabric, though, is denying him another four years in office. Otherwise, it could be permanent.
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