The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump has adopted the coward’s conception of heroism

President Trump at the annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia on Saturday.
President Trump at the annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia on Saturday. (Danny Wild/USA Today)
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Two recent events — one deadly serious, the other merely pathetic — raise the question: What is the true meaning of strength?

First, there was President Trump’s grant of clemency to three U.S. servicemen accused of war crimes — two of whom Trump brought to the stage during a Florida fundraiser in a kind of presidential tribute to brutality. In Trump’s version of events, he was protecting “warriors” from the pettifogging timidity of the so-called deep state. “We train our boys to be killing machines,” tweeted the commander in chief, “then prosecute them when they kill!”

Both act and explanation are destructive and offensive. The men and women of the U.S. military are not trained to be killers, though killing combatants in war is certainly part of their job. They are marinated in a code of honorable conduct and serve a cause — the cause of freedom and human dignity — that is inconsistent with the commission of war crimes.

Trump, as we know, is not big on moral codes and is disdainful of causes that transcend nationalism. Once again, he is squandering an inheritance he does not value or understand. He also is expressing a certain view of strength — strength as the brutal application of lawless violence — that is closer to the creed of the Cosa Nostra than to the “duty, honor and country” that calls and characterizes the U.S. armed forces. Trump has adopted the weak man’s view of what strength looks like, the small man’s view of what greatness looks like, the coward’s conception of heroism.

The second event — Trump’s cyberbullying of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg — had lower stakes but represents a similar view of strength. Trump — probably feeling both envy and anger at Thunberg’s selection as Time’s Person of the Yearurged her to “work on her Anger Management problem.” If pressed, Trump would surely explain that he was getting back at someone who had criticized him first. Future historians will look back with horrified confusion at the spectacle of a thin-skinned, graceless old man attempting to crush the spirit of an idealistic teenage girl.

In Trump’s worldview, nothing is more contemptible than weakness — which he defines as vulnerability and self-restraint in the face of provocation. The elements of his code? Blessed are the powerful and pitiless. Blessed are the cruel and ruthless. Do unto others twice as bad as they do unto you.

It is instructive that these two events — the clemency and the bullying — should come during the Christmas season. Whatever you think about the historicity of the biblical accounts, they provide a powerful story about the true nature of power.

The whole narrative is framed by governmental attempts to assert and maintain control. The site of the birth is determined by a government census. The wise men must frustrate Herod’s attempt to locate a competing king. The slaughter of the innocents is state-sponsored mass murder. The holy family must flee to Egypt as refugees. The Roman Empire and its client ruler are attempting to snuff out potential sedition in its cradle. And that intention is fulfilled some three decades later — to all outward appearances — in a public trial and crucifixion.

“From beginning to end,” says Christian author Philip Yancey, “the conflict between Rome and Jesus appeared to be entirely one-sided. The execution of Jesus would put an apparent end to any threat, or so it was assumed at the time. Tyranny would win again. It occurred to no one that his stubborn followers might just outlast the Roman empire.”

But that is what happened. And the Christmas narrative indicates why. Whatever else this story may be, it is an inversion of our view of power — as though we had lived our whole lives upside down and were finally set aright. In God’s perspective on events, the culmination of history takes place among common people. Shepherds are the audience for angels. The stable is more influential than the royal court. Refugees are more important than rulers. The hopes of humankind are met, against all expectation, in a helpless infant. Power is found in the renunciation of power; strength is perfected in weakness.

It is not always obvious how this great inversion applies in our lives or our politics. But it forbids us from believing that cruelty can bring authority, or that peace can be achieved through murder, or that justice can arrive through lawlessness. It calls us to humility and decency over arrogance and ruthlessness. And it provides the Christmas hope that love will have the final word.

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Read a letter to the editor responding to this column: Michael Gerson offers a shining reprieve from Trump fatigue

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