When President Trump and first lady Melania Trump showed up at former president George H.W. Bush’s funeral on Wednesday, it was inherently awkward — and it showed. Here he was seated next to three other living presidents and their spouses — almost all of whom he had attacked in intensely personal terms at one point or another.
I noted this on Twitter, and I got a good bit of pushback for it.
Perhaps the most frequent critique on social media was that all these things were, in fact, true. But that involves continuing to subscribe to the idea that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, which just isn’t a serious argument. (The other three are more subjective, though I’d point out Nos. 2 and 3 involve declaring someone guilty without due process, which . . .)
A more valid criticism — and the one I’ll address here — was that bringing up old political feuds on this particular day was gauche or betrayed some kind of reflexive desire to make everything about Trump and negative. Basically, the argument is that this was gratuitous. An extension of this argument was that Trump’s attacks on his predecessors and their spouses are just how the political game is played and that we’re unfairly saddling Trump with his past words on a somber occasion.
The Washington Examiner’s Philip Wegmann made such a case in a piece titled, “Incivility got worse, but it didn’t start with Trump”:
Trump is the worst offender today, and his critics have dog-piled. See this tweet from the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, who catalogues the worst insults he lobbed at each of the mourners. He said Obama was illegitimate, Hillary Clinton should be thrown in prison, and Jimmy Carter was the second worst president to ever occupy the Oval Office. All of it nasty, none of it unprecedented.
Wegmann concedes that Trump’s attacks are harsher than the ones lobbed by other presidential hopefuls in recent years but then turns to some historical examples. There was Lyndon Johnson saying Gerald Ford “played too much football with his helmet off.” There was Teddy Roosevelt saying William McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.” There was Andrew Jackson saying he had “only two regrets: I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.”
None of this is intended to excuse incivility, let alone violence. Don’t misunderstand me. The point is that politicians are a vicious type by temperament. Perhaps Trump is worse because Trump is more direct. But it would be dishonest to disregard past history to dunk on the current president. It would also be harmful to the health of our country.
Incivility did not start with Trump. He is the product of the coarsening nature of politics, a development that we should try to overcome. But let petty politicians hate each other. The real problem begins with a divided America where neighbors turn on each other. Pretending that our problems will end when Trump leaves the White House, spinning fantasies about an always civil era of politics that never existed, keeps us from addressing more fundamental problems.
There are some well-taken points here, but the overarching theme seems to be that Trump’s rhetoric is actually kind of unremarkable and wasn’t worthy of such focus on Wednesday. I simply disagree.
While other politicians have undoubtedly done and said nasty things — some of them on par with and, yes, even nastier than Trump — Trump has raised (or perhaps lowered) the bar considerably for modern political history. Even that Johnson quote was kind of jokey. Roosevelt calling McKinley unprincipled is pretty par for the course, actually, and isn’t really calling someone illegitimate or a criminal. And Jackson, once revered, is now somewhat notorious for his brutality as president. Even in reaching back nearly 200 years for comparisons, these don’t quite argue for Trump’s rhetoric not being remarkable and personal.
But even if they did, the fact is that we’re seeing a change now. The coarsening of our politics is worth noting whenever it occurs, even if it comes after a period of smoothing. As a society, we seek to strike a balance between political gamesmanship and unhealthy rhetoric, and that needle was drawn back from where it was in Jackson’s day for a very good reason: Atrocities were being committed, and we were slowly descending into civil war.
As for the appropriateness of noting Trump’s comments on this day, of all days? This was the rare day he was seated next to the former presidents and first ladies whom he had criticized as illegitimate, criminal or just plain awful. It seemed awkward, with the Obamas shaking his and Melania Trump’s hands but the Clintons not really acknowledging their entrance. This was a moment during which Trump’s over-the-top criticisms of our country’s past White House occupants all came rushing back in one image. It may not be repeated.
I sympathize with the idea that the funeral should be about George H.W. Bush and his presidency; I hope, all in all, that remains the case. But the homages to Bush’s historically genteel approach to politics provided an opportunity to take stock of how far we’ve come since his presidency, and just how appropriate it is for a president of the United States to lodge baseless conspiracy theories against his political opponents or talk about jailing them.
To give Trump a pass in that moment and pretend like he was just another of the presidents sitting in that row would be to ignore an elephant in the room and pretend like this is normal for a president in this era. It’s not, and this was an opportunity to raise the issue and allow people to draw their own conclusions.
They can decide whether the president sitting alongside all those other presidents at the funeral of a president actually acts like a president should.