I wanted this column to be about something other than the man in the White House. To look away now and then is a healthy discipline.
But President Trump’s impulsive attack on his predecessors, blurted during a joint news conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has raised again a question that has haunted me since his inaugural address. Is Trump patriotic?
In case you missed it, the president was asked why he had been quiet for nearly two weeks about the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4. Trump could have answered in a number of ways: by noting the danger of speaking ahead of all the facts; by citing the need for care with details of a covert operation. Instead, he hemmed and hawed about letters he had written to the families of the dead soldiers (but not yet sent), before adding that he might call the families, too, if he has time.
Shifting to the attack, as he often does when he feels threatened, Trump accused his predecessors of failing to appreciate fully the toll of their decisions on the men and women they command.
“If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I am able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Trump said.
Put aside the casual insincerity of this calumny, which had him backpedaling the moment it left his mouth. He tried to take back “most” and substitute “a lot.” And don’t expect him to call every family — only those that are “appropriate,” and only when he thinks he is “able to do it.” (At that point he had called none of the four families.)
What struck me was Trump’s contempt for his predecessors. With scarcely a thought, he attacked not their policies, but their characters, accusing them of being casual about the deaths of American soldiers.
In their eye-opening book “The Presidents Club,” my friends Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy documented the deep and complex empathy fostered among sitting presidents and their predecessors. Only they can understand the weighty experience of the office, and this makes even bitter political rivals into “fellow travelers in the parallel universe where past, present, and future blur, where the terrain of regret looks very different and where there is hardly ever such a thing as a perfect outcome.”
However, the newest club member appears incapable of empathy. Thus, he can malign not just the decisions but also the decency of previous presidents. And not as a matter of principle — merely on impulse, a whim.
Patriotism doesn’t require us to praise what is not praiseworthy. Like any other American, Trump is free to criticize as he sees fit. But when an elected leader disparages, without cause, the good faith of other elected leaders, he is tearing the country down. What sort of nation, after all, would elect them?
I might be reading too much into a passing remark, except that Trump has been at this business from the beginning. His campaign was a tirade against “stupid” leaders who never managed to accomplish things that he would deliver on Day One. (We’re still waiting.) The transition was filled with talk of incompetent intelligence agencies. His inaugural address told the world that America’s bipartisan foreign policy of the previous 75 years was only a craven and deliberate theft of the nation’s wealth by its own leaders, to be “redistributed all across the world.”
No one could hear and heed that speech without thinking less of the United States. For this was not some buck-chasing talk-show host tossing veiled charges of treason. This was the new president.
I don’t think we’ve ever been led by a person with such a low opinion of America. And I’m hardly the only one to notice. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose military service Trump denigrated during his campaign, had this to say on Monday: “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism” — to be Trump, in other words — is “unpatriotic.”
The president insists that football players show respect for the national anthem, yet he has no respect for the good faith of those who served before him. He complains that critics are unfair to him even as he unfairly maligns his predecessors. At 71, Trump is experiencing public service for the very first time. We can but hope that the value of it will eventually dawn on him.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.