It’s nearly three days into the administration of President Donald J. Trump, and he’s managed to make one thing clear already: He is not our president. Not yet.
He seems almost obsessed with proving this to us with each day. Each new tweet, each new unworthy kerfuffle he takes up and busies himself with brings it to our attention again – he’s not our president.
I’m not speaking here of some popular vote fetish. I don’t mean he didn’t win election. I mean he has not become our president. He’s held his right hand aloft, and placed his left upon a Bible before the entire nation and assembled dignitaries. He’s said the words; he’s sworn the oath. But something isn’t right. Some ineffable thing has not transpired. So there he stands, a garish sort of pretender to our highest office – large-headed, bushy-browed, in a suit, appearing angry most of the time. He’s riding in the right limo, he’s been seen entering the right house on Pennsylvania Ave., but something’s amiss. He remains a spectre of a president, a changeling president, a creature we cannot recognize awaiting transformation.
Let’s begin as he did – his inaugural speech. A president has to do just a few things in this speech to marry himself to the citizens of our republic. He has to show humility on his great day; he has to show a scope of global consideration that embodies American exceptionalism and reveals the heart of a great nation as it regards the world; he has to make his listeners’ hearts soar with a sense of possibility and great things to come. It sounds like frippery perhaps, but it’s critical.
In his speech Trump said many awful things but among the worst was, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be—always—America first.” In what passes in him for a flourish of extemporaneity he added, “America first.”
He could not manage to offer up even one of the crucial items an incoming president must in order to join the country together and move us energetically into the first days of governance. It’s as though he’s not succumbed to that moment of awareness presidents talk about. The moment where they feel the full force of the job they are poised to undertake settle onto their shoulders, and at least symbolically drop to their knees under both the weight and the awe of it. I thought maybe, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where he laid a wreath after arriving in Washington, his moment had come. Trump stood, looking straight ahead, and he seemed to breathe heavily. If you watch film of it, you’ll see him patting at his chest repeatedly, right over his heart. He did this many times, and I thought at first it indicated depth of emotion. But I wonder now if it was mere impatience at standing there for so long.
Trump appears unable to sense the U.S. as anything more than another company to run. Worse, he appears to have no one around him who might point him towards a moment in which he could stumble across the realization that nothing could be farther from the truth. He speaks briskly of trimming, clipping – ‘skinny budgets’ potentially eliminating funding for arts and humanities. Where former presidents praised American artistic vision even as they did scientific initiative and entrepreneurial drive, Trump speaks in a mingy, crabbed way of “America first.” You can see the mean kid on the school yard elbowing everyone else out of his way to be first in line for lunch.
I have always felt America’s greatness lay in part in the capacity of every citizen to be moved – deeply, at the core – by its origin story, by its Constitution, by its durability and flexibility in stormy times. By the knowledge that immigrants literally teemed onto our shores and poured into our cities to build them, expand them, and ultimately make both those cities and themselves great. The notion of a nation whose citizens actually make one another better by example is a wonder in the world.
The fact that America’s leaders are charged with mirroring and amplifying the dreams and strivings of its people, as well as recognizing and alleviating their sufferings, is also a wonder, especially in a world where national leadership often springs from raw brutality and military force.
This sort of nationally inspired and shared wonder at the very essence of the U.S. seems to be a scant commodity – an undervalued one, at that – in the Trump administration. They appear sealed off from it. They come from a place of defense alternating with aggression, and as of now it just looks ugly, unevolved, and mean. It certainly gives the rest of the world no reason to hope or to wish us well.
I have few feelings of empathy for the Trump I’ve read about, but I have great stirrings still for the presidency. What it is meant to be, what it has been and can be at its finest. It can be such a beacon, even in a dim world of disaster, terrorism, hunger and thirst. But that beacon must be lit from within. I see no light in Trump, and it will be the greatest of both human and global tragedies if this man cannot ever manage to find that light, and show it to us all.