In another time, in a different circumstance, there would perhaps be room to pity such a person.
The most revealing answer from Donald Trump’s interview with Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace came in response not to the toughest question posed by Wallace, but to the easiest.
At the conclusion of the interview, Wallace asked Trump how he will regard his years as president.
“I think I was very unfairly treated,” Trump responded. “From before I even won, I was under investigation by a bunch of thieves, crooks. It was an illegal investigation.”
When Wallace interrupted, trying to get Trump to focus on the positive achievements of his presidency—“What about the good parts, sir?”—Trump brushed the question aside, responding, “Russia, Russia, Russia.” The president then complained about the Flynn investigation, the “Russia hoax,” the “Mueller scam,” and the recusal by his then–attorney general, Jeff Sessions. (“Now I feel good because he lost overwhelmingly in the great state of Alabama,” Trump said about the first senator to endorse him in the 2016 Republican primary.)
Donald Trump is a psychologically broken, embittered, and deeply unhappy man. He is so gripped by his grievances, such a prisoner of his resentments, that even the most benevolent question from an interviewer—what good parts of your presidency would you like to be remembered for?—triggered a gusher of discontent.
But the president still wasn’t done. “Here’s the bottom line,” he said. “I’ve been very unfairly treated, and I don’t say that as paranoid. I’ve been very—everybody says it. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. But there was tremendous evidence right now as to how unfairly treated I was. President Obama and Biden spied on my campaign. It’s never happened in history. If it were the other way around, the people would be in jail for 50 years right now.”
Just in case his bitterness wasn’t coming through clearly enough, the president added this: “That would be Comey, that would be Brennan, that would be all of this—the two lovers, Strzok and Page, they would be in jail now for many, many years. They would be in jail; it would’ve started two years ago, and they’d be there for 50 years. The fact is, they illegally spied on my campaign. Let’s see what happens. Despite that, I did more than any president in history in the first three and a half years.”
With that, the interview ended.
Such a disposition in almost anyone else—a teacher, a tax accountant, a CEO, a cab driver, a reality-television star—would be unfortunate enough. After all, people who obsess about being wronged are just plain unpleasant to be around: perpetually ungrateful, short-tempered, self-absorbed, never at peace, never at rest.
But Donald Trump isn’t a teacher, a tax accountant, or (any longer) a reality-television star; he is, by virtue of the office he holds, in possession of unmatched power. The fact that he is devoid of any moral sensibilities or admirable human qualities—
- a desire for justice—
means he has no internal moral check; the question Is this the right thing to do? never enters his mind. As a result, he not only nurses his grievances; he acts on them. He lives to exact revenge, to watch his opponents suffer, to inflict pain on those who don’t bend before him. Even former war heroes who have died can’t escape his wrath.
So Donald Trump is a vindictive man who also happens to be commander in chief and head of the executive branch, which includes the Justice Department, and there is no one around the president who will stand up to him. He has surrounded himself with lapdogs.
But the problem doesn’t end there. In a single term, Trump has reshaped the Republican Party through and through, and his dispositional imprint on the GOP is as great as any in modern history, including Ronald Reagan’s.
I say that as a person who was deeply shaped by Reagan and his presidency. My first job in government was working for the Reagan administration, when I was in my 20s. The conservative movement in the 1980s, although hardly flawless, was intellectually serious and politically optimistic. And Reagan himself was a man of personal decency, grace, and class. While often the target of nasty attacks, he maintained a remarkably charitable view of his political adversaries. “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents,” the former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who worked for Reagan, quotes him as admonishing his staff.
In his farewell address to the nation, Reagan offered an evocative description of America. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it,” he said. “But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
A city tall and proud, its people living in harmony and peace, surrounded by walls with open doors; that was Ronald Reagan’s image of America, and Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party.
When Reagan died in 2004, the conservative columnist George Will wrote a moving tribute to his friend, saying of America’s 40th president, “He traveled far, had a grand time all the way, and his cheerfulness was contagious.” Reagan had a “talent for happiness,” according to Will. And he added this: “Reagan in his presidential role made vivid the values, particularly hopefulness and friendliness, that give cohesion and dynamism to this continental nation.”
There were certainly ugly elements on the American right during the Reagan presidency, and Reagan himself was not without flaws. But as president, he set the tone, and the tone was optimism, courtliness and elegance, joie de vivre.
He has since been replaced by the crudest and cruelest man ever to be president. But not just that. One senses in Donald Trump no joy, no delight, no laughter. All the emotions that drive him are negative. There is something repugnant about Trump, yes, but there is also something quite sad about the man. He is a damaged soul.
In another time, in a different circumstance, there would perhaps be room to pity such a person. But for now, it is best for the pity to wait. There are other things to which to attend. The American public faces one great and morally urgent task above all others between now and November: to do everything in its power to remove from the presidency a self-pitying man who is shattering the nation and doesn’t even care.
My mom always spelled out I Street as Eye Street when she addressed mail there, so it wouldn’t be confusing.
Last Saturday night, the eyes of the world were on Eye Street, where The Times’s office is located, as the street became a hellscape of American pain, going up in flames during protests fanning out from the White House.
I kept thinking about the small yellow church around the corner, known as the “Church of Presidents,” where Madison paid the rent and Lincoln sat in a pew in the back. It was just a few years ago that Barack Obama and his family sometimes attended church there. A week ago, there was a towering bonfire in front of the church and then a fire in the basement.
How could we possibly, in a brief stretch, have gone from the euphoria of our first black president to the desolation of racial strife ripping apart the country?
I was so happy the day of Obama’s inauguration because it was the first time I had seen my hometown truly integrated. Armed with a bag of croissants and a bottle of Champagne, I made my groggy houseguests get up at 4 a.m. the next day, so we could watch the new era dawn at the Lincoln Memorial.
Beyoncé’s security turned us away — the singer had performed the night before and the guards were still there — but it didn’t matter. We caught a glimpse of Abe in the pink light as the Obama family settled into their new home.
I’ve always cherished Washington’s luminous monuments. So it was excruciating this past week to see the chucklehead who has waged war on our institutions, undermined our laws and values, stoked division at every turn, blundering around defiling the monuments that symbolize the best about America.
After the country was rocked to its soul by the sight of a handcuffed black man dying while being held down by a police officer as those around begged for mercy, Trump could hardly summon a shred of empathy. His only move was to grab a can of kerosene and cry “Domination!”
Turning the American military against Americans was a scalding tableau that was a nadir even for the former military school bully. The creepy William Barr, who gets to be called “General,” had troops clear out mostly peaceful protesters so Trump could walk through Lafayette Park, preening as a fake tough guy, and pose in front of St. John’s. Ivanka went into her luxe purse to hand him his prop, a Bible, which he held up awkwardly. It’s a wonder his hand did not burst into flames.
That night, the sound of summer in Washington was a Black Hawk helicopter shadowing the protesters.
This misuse of the military and the sight of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, walking in camouflage while protesters were blasted with chemicals, at long last spurred Jim Mattis to push back. Mattis wrote to The Atlantic that he was “angry and appalled” at Trump for making “a mockery of our Constitution.” He suggested that we all just move beyond the depraved divider if we are to have any hope of uniting the country.
The brutish scene conjured Tuesday at the Lincoln Memorial, with National Guard troops in rows on the steps below the Great Emancipator, was unconscionable. Soldiers ominously stood on the hallowed ground where Marian Anderson sang in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution would not let her perform at Constitution Hall because she was black, and where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Trump tweeted Wednesday that he had done more for black Americans than any president “with the possible exception of” Lincoln.
Lincoln gave his life trying to stop a clash of civilizations, “with malice toward none,” while Trump spends his presidency ginning up a clash of civilizations, with malice toward all.
(When Kayleigh McEnany had the temerity to compare Trump to Churchill, one lawyer I know dryly noted: “We shall fight them on the golf courses; we shall fight them on Twitter; we shall fight them at Mar-a-Lago.”)
On Friday, Trump was so giddy about the surprisingly good jobs report that he mused about getting an R.V. so he and Melania could drive to New York. Cue “Green Acres.” Since even a man killed by the police should offer Pence-like praise of Dear Leader, Trump blithely observed, “Hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying, ‘This is a great thing that’s happening for our country.’”
That afternoon, as protesters in front of St. John’s danced to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” the president threw racial chum in the Potomac. He tweeted that Drew Brees “should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered … NO KNEELING!”
He called Muriel Bowser, the poised black mayor of D.C. who wanted the federal troops out of the capital, “incompetent” and then upgraded her to “grossly incompetent.” Friday night, he retweeted someone who posted that “Barack Obama put a target on the back of every cop in this country.”
It’s sad to see the tall black fences going up around the White House, turning the “People’s House” into an outpost as dark as the psyche of the man who lives within. But Bowser offered the best troll on the First Troller when she had the words “Black Lives Matter” painted in yellow in front of the White House and St. John’s. She tweeted that she was renaming the area “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
And that matters.
Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.