In this holiday season, a familiar question arises: Is President Trump trying to undermine democracy, or is he just irredeemably vain?
It's a toss of the coin — specifically, Trump's commemorative "Challenge Coin," which just had its public debut.
Typically, these coins are simple copper-and-silver designs with the presidential seal and signature. But Trump's is thicker, bright gold and with a built-in stand. Beyond the garish presentation, it defaces the presidential seal: The eagle looks right instead of left, it no longer holds the 13 arrows representing the original states, and the national motto — "E pluribus unum," which translates to " Out of many, one" — is gone. Instead, both sides of the coin display Trump's campaign motto, "Make America Great Again," and his name appears four times.
The year-end move follows Trump's use of Independence Day for self-promotion over national unity. He used Fourth of July celebrations to tout a new song for his campaign-style appearances. It mainly involves singing "Make America Great Again" over and over.
Trump has copyrighted the phrase "Make America Great Again"; imagine the royalties if he can get it added to U.S. currency in place of the boring motto "In God We Trust." (He might also resolve the debate about whether to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 note instead of Andrew Jackson by putting himself on it.)
Now that he has disposed of "E pluribus unum," perhaps we can expect him to update the Marines motto from "semper fidelis" to "semper magnus" (always great). My friend Vanessa, a Latin instructor, tells me a simple change to the Justice Department motto — "Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur," or "he who prosecutes for justice" — would make it " Qui Pro Domino Sequitur," or "he who prosecutes for the master." Take that, Robert S. Mueller III.
While Trump's at it, he might as well buff out the "equal justice under law" in the marble over the Supreme Court entrance and install big, beautiful gold letters saying "MAGA!"
The flag would be aesthetically more appealing and less cluttered if it only had stars for the 30 states that voted for Trump. And Trump aide Stephen Miller could remove that Emma Lazarus poem he so dislikes that now adorns the Statue of Liberty. Instead, he can add a plaque bearing the words: "Give me only your great."
Some are born great and some achieve greatness, but all of us are having greatness rammed down our throats now.
Even on Christmas Eve, Trump was attacking the FBI's deputy director, boasting that he protected the phrase "Merry Christmas" from a supposed "assault," retweeting a photo of himself with the word "WINNING" superimposed, and tweeting this Christmas message: "The Fake News refuses to talk about how Big and how Strong our BASE is . . . nobody is going to beat us. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
At a Christmas service in Florida that Trump attended, rector James Harlan preached about Nelson Mandela's advice to "understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die."
Did Trump think Harlan was talking about him when he said, "Your words can have as much destructive potential as they do healing"? More likely, he thought people were talking about him when they sang "O come let us adore him."
In a Christmas video, Trump briefly captured the meaning of the day when he spoke of renewing "the bonds of love and goodwill between our citizens." But even in this message, he managed to find division. He highlighted the belief that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah prophesied that Jesus would be the Messiah. Jews dispute that interpretation.
The holiday wasn't yet over when Trump tweeted that "tomorrow it's back to work in order to Make America Great Again (which is happening faster than anyone anticipated)!" The next morning, he resumed attacks on Obamacare and a "Crooked Hillary pile of garbage."
Contrast that with another head of state's Christmas message. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II spoke of the resilience of London and Manchester after terrorist attacks, mentioned the victims of Caribbean hurricanes, hailed charities and volunteers, and delivered a unifying Christmas theme about the baby Jesus, "whose only sanctuary was a stable in Bethlehem. He knew rejection, hardship and persecution, and yet it is Jesus Christ's generous love and example which has inspired me through good times and bad."
I write this on Boxing Day, a holiday for many of the Commonwealth nations of the former British empire, with a twinge of envy. I don't wish that the queen would take us back. But I regret that our head of state, with his jingoistic talk of greatness, squanders American goodness.