February 5, 2018
President Trump’s State of the Union address has received a surprisingly bland response. The Democratic rejoinder, by Rep. Kennedy, was eloquent but general; it could have been offered on any occasion. Savannah Guthrie, one of the panel of pundits assembled by NBC, managed to find that Trump’s address "was optimistic, it was bright, it was conciliatory. . . . He set a tone and he was positive and he trumpeted the economy, and I think that's exactly what he wanted to do." Granting that she had reservations on substance, that is a strikingly kind appraisal of a smug, inane performance by a man who has failed every possible test as a leader and as a person. (The GOP web site included her remarks in a list of positive reactions to the speech).
The New York Times’ evaluation, at least in the edition I received, wasn’t even a response, but a recitation of Trump’s agenda. Its headline was "President Issues Appeal for Unity in State of the Union." However the appended article based its conclusion that he called for unity not on the address, but on "excerpts released before his speech." An example, in the speech as given, of his unifying approach is the demand, disguised as the "pillars" of immigration reform, that Democrats accept his program, including the wall, as the price of protecting Dreamers. The Times elsewhere has pointed out many of Trump’s flaws. However, these bland, celebratory reviews lend respectability to a man and an administration that don’t deserve it. Donald Trump has so sullied the office that a willingness to treat his address as presidential is an exercise in delusion, of self and audience. The classiness of his approach to the SOTU, and the sincerity of his "appeal for union," are shown by his accusation that Democrats who failed to applaud are guilty of treason.
Here is a more appropriate evaluation of Presidential performance: "What makes our society tick, aside from good governance and competence, is good character. And good character is not some abstraction. It is one of those tangible, very real human attributes that we know, and appreciate, when we see it." We have had a year to evaluate the President in terms of those qualities, and he has failed.
It’s true that we should not expect perfection; everyone has flaws. However, there are limits. "What we need is a realistic, disinterested view of whether such flaws are, or might be, relevant to the highest public office. Sometimes they are. A president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power, and contempt for the rule of law cannot be a good president. These aspects of character, in this combination, are surely relevant."
The scandal surrounding the President "now involves very public, very emphatic lies. Breaches of trust. The subversion of truth. The possibility of criminal wrongdoing." The various defenses offered "cannot obscure the more profound underlying issue: violations of law and efforts to undermine constitutional government."
Repeated lying corrupts the political process. "In general, if the president's word cannot be trusted—an issue of character—voters cannot take seriously his election platform or his campaign promises—an issue of public duty. Words are deconstructed, promises emptied of meaning. Politics is reduced to a mere game. It is all very straightforward: if a man's word means nothing, it means nothing. It is folly to believe otherwise." Trump lies reflexively.
However, we aren’t reacting as we should; we’re either numb or disinterested. Why? "What explains this seeming public indifference toward, and even acceptance of, the president's scandals? The explanations most often put forth include very good economic times; scandal fatigue; . . . the president's hyperaggressive, relentless, and effective spin team; the inclination to withhold judgment until more facts are known or give the president the benefit of the doubt; . . . and the fact that Republican leadership . . . has been quiescent and inconsistent in its comments . . . ."
No doubt you have, by now, especially given the ellipses in the last quote, tumbled to the fact that I am playing a political-historical game. The quotes are from The Death of Outrage, by William Bennett, and refer to President Clinton’s behavior regarding the Monica affair. However, his observations are more apt now; we have reached the point at which each new report simply is added to the pile; there is so much that nothing stands out. Worst, because Trump is such a joke as President, we no longer hold him to a normal standard. Outrage isn’t dead, but it isn’t in perfect health.
19. Bennett, The Death of Outrage (1998), pp. 3, 36, 38, 42, 128.