Verbum Ultimum: Death at an Inaugural
Donald Trump deviates from the dignity and grace of our political culture.
There is a literary motif of a line of thrones filled with carvings of kings and queens: the first rulers with wise, kind faces in a line that descends into an ending of cruel and twisted effigies. Here lies a metaphor for the sweep of history, with societies first valuing noble, gracious sovereigns, then — through strife and corruption — selecting instead those of lower moral bearing.
Today, we bid goodbye to that first sort of man. Whatever his policy accomplishments, President Barack Obama has brought grace, dignity and humility to his office, and in that he is in the best traditions of our leaders. George Washington — renowned for his manners, kindness and virtue — began that trend. He was, in the words of Abigail Adams, “polite with dignity, affable without formality, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity; modest, wise and good” — that is, the perfect character of a president. Others have come and gone. They have sacrificed their own interests for those of our country. They have led us with fearsome bravery. They have asked the most of us and given even more of themselves.
Today is surreal for many Americans. The country of Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy, of Margaret Chase Smith and Dwight Eisenhower, of Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., has elected as its leader a man who publicly mocked a disabled reporter, brags about sexually assaulting women and advocated calling his own daughter “a piece of ass.” For all their flaws, most of our leaders of yesteryear have found it possible to put aside their private vices to embody the ideals of our country in their public lives. There are innumerable such incidents, but today, as the country inaugurates President-elect Donald Trump as its next commander-in-chief, we do not need to recount all incidents. Instead, we will discuss what Trump means for this country.
Our political culture is decaying. Today, the American people will see as their chief a man who mocks and belittles those who disagree with him, who has little self-control or sense of shame. We are now living in a society where children will look up to a man who acts like Trump — and how do we think they will learn to behave? We live in a country where our politicians win elections not through the discussion of issues of importance but through insult comedy. And so the rot has settled deeper amongst us.
For years we have sought politicians who are like us, men and women with whom we want to “grab a beer.” Perhaps it is our own fault, then, that we now have a president who represents the worst in us. Our politicians are meant to serve the people, yes, but to be true leaders. They must also be the best of us, they must show the greatest aspirations of our society in their manner and their conduct. However, Trump is an inversion of that, contrary to a tradition of dignity and American honor. In him, we see that politics is about winning, not trying to help or lead; next, it seems we are to learn that governing is about cronyism and policy by tweet rather than measured thinking or discussions between learned legislators and administrators.
Trump is not responsible for these changes all by himself. American politics — especially in Washington, D.C. — has been devolving into clannish partisanship and petty bickering for many years. He is just the crowning achievement of that trend. Few elected officials in our nation’s capital now fulfill the best traditions of American politics: fundamentally good people with monumental disagreements who work in concert to protect our democracy, fighting ever for their beliefs and never for personal gain.
The inauguration itself ought to be a ceremony above politics, a celebration of our republic and the peaceful transition of power. But will it be a dignified event with Trump at its center? We shall see, but all evidence suggests it will not. His treatment of his political opponents — including many within his own party — and the way in which he acts toward those he views as his inferiors suggests that he will be hard pressed to stall his antics for the few hours today when he will officially, before the eyes of the world, join the club of 45 men who have at least attempted to bring dignity to the office. Trump has sullied that office before even stepping into it in a way more damaging and likely more lasting than any president, including Richard Nixon. We hope that he will change his temperament entirely after he is sworn in.
When he spoke to the black community of Indianapolis, Indiana upon King’s assassination in 1968, Robert Kennedy united black and white, men and women, all Americans, in peaceful mourning for a truly great American leader. Kennedy quoted the poetry of Aeschylus, a poem rife with grief that told of rebirth and the finding of acceptance. And he concluded: “Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.