We saw a deep contrast between President Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago and President-Elect Trump’s first press conference in Washington. With Obama, saw heard the soaring rhetoric that we have become accustomed to over the past eight years. We have also listened as the outgoing president recounted many of the policy successes over the past two terms, along with an acknowledgement of policy defeats that will be passed to future administrations.
In the case of Donald Trump, we are now observing a complete departure of anything that resembles presidential behavior. We are seeing a complete shredding of presidential norms observed by any American leader elected to high office since the dark days of Watergate. We are also heading into a dangerous chapter of American history and we will actually discover if our democratic institutions can withstand a president with a strong authoritarian predisposition during our time of great peril.
There are those who think Donald Trump will magically transform himself into a moderating presence of how an American leader should behave—but they are seriously deluding themselves. In Donald Trump, what you see is what you get; he has behaved like this since he emerged during the mid-1970’s as a Manhattan developer.
Last week’s press conference is a Rosetta Stone for Donald Trump’s future behavior and we remain unsure about his corrosive nature on the Great American Experiment.
Excelling at the Presidency is about doing your homework. It’s all about going through reams of issues-based political binders and getting daily security briefings to better understand the state of the world. Throughout this campaign, Donald Trump has essentially “winged it” and has successfully leveraged his questionable business talents, sidestepped his numerous bankruptcies closures, but at no time did he take the office with any seriousness. Perhaps he was among the most surprised on Election Night when he actually discovered that he defeated Hillary Clinton. However, he has failed to take the preparatory piece seriously and he now enters into the White House as one of the least prepared people in modern history.
Running as a WWE wrestler as opposed to something that underlines the cool demeanor of a statesman on the make, Donald Trump now will have to work with the very same people he has humiliated along the campaign trail. Governing is all about addition—the counting of votes—and regardless of a President’s political affiliation, humiliating partisan allies will only incur the first of many self-inflicted wounds as Trump stumbles through his first term.
He will soon discover that Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz may have faded as presidential candidates, but these Republican Senators continue to sit in powerful committee slots. Marco Rubio has the potential to hijack the Secretary of State selection through a variety of committee maneuvers in order to exact his revenge. Since Rubio was recently re-elected to another six-year term, he will not face the voters again until long after Trump’s first term. Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain—another American hero that Trump ceaselessly mocked—have roamed the hallways of Congress long enough to how to maneuver and bend the President’s agenda to their will.
However, the presence of Donald Trump has unified members of the Democratic Party like nobody in recent memory. Any squabbles between the Hillary and Bernie factions have long been put aside because the incoming president is hell bent upon replacing Obamacare with something that remains a complete mystery to anybody who covers Trump with any regularity. We are now seeing the largest mass protests since the height of the Vietnam War—and Trump has not even taken the oath of office yet.
However, Trump’s foreign policy inexperience and his willingness to tweet at all hours of the night should give everyone a great deal of concern. His love for Vladimir Putin wanders into very dangerous ground. Calling NATO, the most important American alliance as antiquated and outdated is certainly music to Vladimir Putin’s ears. Offering to lift American sanctions on Russia because of the military incursion and illegal annexation of the Crimean region is a desire that comes straight from Putin’s lips. Questioning the One-China policy, which has guided the most important global relationship of the United States since President Nixon landed in Beijing on Air Force One, can become a precursor for an actual shooting war.
As for Nixon, he once said that domestic policy can damage you politically but screwing up foreign policy can have unthinkable consequences. Jaws hit the floor when Trump questioned military briefers why nuclear weapons were not actually used in current battlefield scenarios. He has run away from his promises on the trail. The Great Wall promised by Trump early in the campaign now will be fronted with American dollars and somehow repaid by the government of Mexico. Trump behaves like a high school sophomore in his first history class who is trying to fake his way to finals with borrowed copies of Cliff-Notes.
History is repeating itself. Countries that have experienced a period of ultra-nationalism often find that it is the final step before they stumble into a long and corrosive war. Ultra-nationalism was the rage in the aggressor-nations just before each of the two World Wars that ravaged the 20th century began. Tyrants emerged from the political margins and by demonizing enemies either internal or abroad, they whipped up such a frenzy that the world plunged into a horror of great darkness. While Trump supporters might feel that these concerns are silly, it was what many Americans believed before both world wars were fought in faraway places.
So we now stand on the precipice of great danger but as citizens, we have to take risks of our own in order to preserve what makes America a special place and a moral force on the world scene.
Donald Trump won this election and he will be President of the United States—but we don’t have to like it. He might place his hand on a family bible or one borrowed from one of his hotels, but we don’t have to be complicit in his madness. He might bear down with an authoritarian impulse, but he must be reminded that power comes from the people not from above.
In the end, our American democracy is what we make it; by standing strong, we can elevate this this into our finest hour but if we fail, it will certainly be our last.