“A great empire and little minds go ill together,” said Edmund Burke.
The United States is not quite an empire, but one little mind was on full display during President Trump’s speech this past weekend to the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was two hours of Trump unplugged, unleashed, uncensored, unreconstructed and unhinged. It was a vivid reminder that the president of the United States, when he is most comfortable and authentic, is a rude, arrogant crank yelling profanities at the television. Correction: through the television.
Most Americans, I suspect, would judge the speech as bad and rambling. To a former speechwriter, it was like watching a wound drain; it was like eating toothpaste canapés, it was like holding centipedes on your tongue; it was like hearing a ringtone of “Macarena” during a funeral, and no one can find the phone.
As the organizing structure of the speech, Trump skipped from enemy to enemy — a taunt here, a mock there. Hillary Clinton made an appearance. As did Robert S. Mueller III and Jeff Sessions, and Central American refugees, and weak-kneed generals, and socialist Democrats, and university administrators, and those horrible people who miscount inaugural crowds.
This last point — that the size of his inaugural crowd was maliciously underestimated by evil forces — seems to be the Ur-myth of Trumpism. It was the subject of his first order as president compelling a minion (poor Sean Spicer) to utter an absurd falsehood on his behalf. Given the flood of lies that has followed, it must have felt darn good. Those who are willing to believe this original lie are the truest of believers — a core of supporters who will stomach absolutely anything.
Trump’s CPAC speech was a bold assertion that he has learned nothing — absolutely nothing — during his first two years in office. Not manners. Not economics. Not geopolitics. Not simple decency.
The speech seemed like the rhetorical spawn of Fidel Castro and George Wallace, combining demagoguery with bigotry in equal measure. And it confirmed Trump’s place as the worst speaker in presidential history.
Having gotten that out of my system, let me turn to what really bothered me. Our president lacks dignity.
This might sound like a relatively small matter compared to things such as honesty, equality and justice. But dignity — both acting in a dignified manner and treating others in a manner appropriate to their dignity — is a core value of democracy. America’s founders were generally suspicious of absolute democracy, which can easily become tyranny exercised by 50 percent of the public plus one. In a strong democracy, those in the majority are restrained by respect for the dignity of those in the minority. If the majority uses its (temporary) power to demean, humiliate and dishonor those out of power, it plants seeds of future revenge and escalation. Disagreements become feuds, and the sense of being in a shared enterprise and having a shared fate is weakened.
A democracy is designed for disagreement; it is undermined by mutual contempt. And Trump’s whole style of politics is the cultivation of contempt. This directly weakens our unity as a nation.
The first president, George Washington, made dignity the defining commitment of his political life. He felt that the office of president should have an element of nearly royal elevation. But the generation of Washington gave way to the age of Andrew Jackson and a much earthier version of democratic participation. Presidents have tended to fall into either the Washington or Jackson camp. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
But Trump is not merely Jacksonian in his crudeness. The president has made the denial of dignity to certain people and groups a political rallying cry. This kind of cruelty and dehumanization is the defining commitment of his political life. He is not merely undignified as a leader; he is committed to stripping away the dignity possessed by others.
There is a tie between incivility and injustice. When a president uses his office to demean others, he is undermining an essential democratic premise — that those out of power are still protected from abuse by general respect for their inherent worth and dignity. They are still partners in a common enterprise. And they deserve better than cruelty and contempt.