A Clear and Present Danger

Four recent events have painted a portrait of key dimensions of the character of President Donald Trump’s persistent assault on America’s regime and its potential consequences for self-governance. The first of these factors is his narcissism and incapacity to acquit himself with regard for others or with decency and decorum. That is, his personal character, or lack of it, including his penchant for pettiness and mendacity, is now undeniable, and his inclination to lie about matters large and small, consequential and not, constitutes a threat to the nation. Among many examples one might cite, this characteristic was revealed by two recent speeches, one to the quadrennial National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America last week and another to a Trump “election” rally held the next day in Youngstown, Ohio. A third indicator of this Presidency’s portent for democracy is a new poll suggesting that fully 49 percent of those who supported Trump in last year’s election believe he won the national popular vote. He did not. He lost that tally by more than 2.9 million votes, but he has repeatedly claimed otherwise, as has Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the Chair of Trump’s new Commission to investigate alleged voter fraud in this country, of which scholars have consistently found virtually none. This example illustrates both Trump’s persistent willingness to lie to aggrandize himself (and to work to prevent those who do not support him from casting ballots), and to attack this nation’s governance and social institutions—in this case, voter rights.

Finally, the President’s false claim that he had consulted “his generals” before sharing his Tweeted decision to ban transgender individuals from U.S. military service, when it was shortly revealed he had done no such thing, demonstrates his proclivity to sacrifice the civil rights of selected Americans to the cynicism of his efforts to maintain the support of his most avid admirers, while lying about the provenance of his decisions. This choice continues a string of attacks on minorities in the United States first pressed during the 2016 campaign and continued since that have included Hispanics, African Americans, those with disabilities, Muslims, Jews and immigrants. His is an ugly demagoguery characterized by hate mongering designed to scapegoat specific groups.

All of these incidents also suggest the manipulation in which Trump is engaged. To date, he has continued to promise his supporters major change to aid them, as at the Youngstown rally, while systematically taking policy and budgetary stands completely counter to those assurances. In short, these examples reveal how Trump assaults voter/citizen belief in American institutions and civic norms, even as he exploits the emotional consternation that his rhetoric and actions create in his followers, to pursue choices that will only deepen their economic and social insecurity. The paradox and irony are profound.

I treat each of these events briefly and then summarize their implications for self-governance should the President keep making false claims, the GOP continue to aid and abet his efforts and his devoted followers persist in believing his lies. First, however, I need to offer a disclaimer concerning a portion of what follows. I am an Eagle Scout and I worked for seven years during my summers as an adolescent and young man at a Boy Scout summer camp in Virginia. I ultimately served as director of the camp at which I worked and also was involved for three summers on the staff of National Scout Council sponsored efforts to train those leading Scout summer camps across the southeastern United States. In short, Scouting was an important part of my youth and young adulthood and it surely helped to shape me, although I have not always agreed with all of the policies of the movement, then or since. I suppose, as Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz has recently written of her husband, United States Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, “once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout.” Brown is one of 10 currently serving Senators who are Eagle Scouts.[1]

Scouting has a long tradition of sponsoring a national gathering or Jamboree in the United States every four years, and those events always attract thousands of youth involved in the movement. The National Council likewise has a tradition of inviting America’s President, irrespective of their partisanship, to address those gathered. Many Presidents have done so over the decades and President Trump accepted the Scouts’ invitation to address this year’s gathering in West Virginia on July 24. Unlike past chief executives, who spoke on the requisites of civic virtue or citizenship, or the importance of character to leadership or similar concerns, President Trump engaged in a 35-minute political rant in which he criticized former President Barack Obama, thanked the young people gathered for helping him win his electoral victory (impossible, as almost none were of voting age) and alluded to hi-jinx and worse among the very rich in New York, of which those assembled could know nothing.

His rambling rhetoric of often hateful excess and ugliness before a crowd of mostly 12-14-year-olds occasioned anger and consternation from leaders on the left and right in Washington and beyond, and finally resulted in an apology from Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh, who stated, “I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the Jamboree. That was never our intent.”[2] I am certain such was never Scouting’s intention, but Trump has not apologized and could not refrain from wildly inappropriate remarks at the event, nor from commenting that he was sure that the “Fake News” media would misreport the size of the crowd assembled to hear him (for the record, the speech was widely covered and the count of that group was accurately relayed). So much for encouraging the active citizenship of the Scouts gathered before him.

At a speech in Youngstown the day after his Boy Scout Jamboree debacle, Trump continued to make the same promises that he did on the campaign trail while paradoxically calling for unity, as he nevertheless acted in a diametrically opposed fashion by publicly disparaging the nation’s media and his Attorney General, hoping in the latter case apparently to encourage him to resign so a successor could be appointed who could end the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump said virtually nothing during that speech about the Senate’s consideration of healthcare system changes then being debated and has indicated publicly he knows little about the topic in any case. That fact did not prevent him from labeling the current health law a “nightmare,” a claim for which there is no evidence. He concluded the Youngstown speech by comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln:

With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, ‘I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office,’ he said. ‘It’s much easier, by the way, to act presidential than what we’re doing here tonight, believe me.’[3]

Trump offered this self-assessment as he continued to assail freedom of the press and work assiduously to undermine the nation’s civic norms. The paradox was vast and those attending still cheered, even as some wondered aloud when he would take the steps to ensure the better Medicare and Medicaid programs he had promised them. Meanwhile, Trump was supporting Senate and House healthcare bills portending massive cuts in Medicaid funding particularly and the loss of health insurance for millions, including many of those at the rally.

A third example of Trump’s ongoing attack on the American governing regime could be seen in a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of a random sample of Trump voters in the 2016 election. That survey found that 49 percent of that number believed that Trump won the popular vote in November 2016. The question this fact raises is how they could be so uninformed. The explanation surely has to do with the fact that President Trump has argued in a Tweet and many times since that, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”[4] The statement is a manifest lie on both counts and has apparently persuaded many of his supporters that he prevailed by wide margins, when he did not. As I note above, he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes.  Kobach, the head of Trump’s Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity, has likely contributed to this perception among Trump supporters by suggesting in a recent television interview, in the face of all evidence and analysis to the contrary, that “we may never know whether [Hillary] Clinton won the popular vote.”[5] This, too, is spurious nonsense and only misleads Trump’s faithful to believe that millions voted illegally when they did not. If successful, this bald-faced and egocentric lie concerning the existence of widespread fraud in the nation’s electoral institutions ultimately could deprive millions of their franchise.

A final example of Trump’s negative behavior occurred on July 26, 2017 when the President announced on his personal Twitter account that he had decided to bar transgender individuals from serving in the nation’s military:

After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.[6]

In truth, the President had not consulted the nation’s generals (they are not “his,” in any case, but serve the nation), nor had they requested this shift. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs quickly made that fact plain following the President’s Tweet. Moreover, current rules prevent military assumption of the supposed costs to which the President pointed. Finally, several thousand such individuals are already serving honorably in the military and some have done so heroically. In light of these facts, it is not difficult to conclude that this was a cynical choice to discriminate against a small group of Americans and deprive them of their civil rights, to curry favor with a part of the President’s perceived electoral base willing to applaud such action. It is ugly and unworthy, and by now typical and indicative of the lack of character of this chief executive.

These examples suggest a pattern of behavior in which Trump will continue to attack America’s civic norms, its institutions and minorities within its population to please his most rabid partisans and to feed his narcissism. It is now more than six months into his presidency, and nearly two years since his entry into the Presidential contest and the campaign that persistently showcased the same disposition, and these behaviors have only become more frequent.  It now seems clear Trump is unlikely to change what he does until his Party begins actively to repudiate him and/or his most vocal supporters recognize that he is not going to do what he tells them he will do. In the meantime, he will continue to tell Scouts and other audiences tales about New York cocktail parties and Fake News, and to rail daily against those who are investigating known Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election. He will also continue to scapegoat vulnerable populations, and in both of these ways he will work to undermine Americans’ confidence in their institutions and their civic capacity to govern themselves.

Notes

[1] Schultz, Connie. “A Jamboree of Teachable Moments,” https://www.creators.com/read/connie-schultz, July 26, 2017, Accessed July 28, 2017.

[2] Fahrenthold, David. “Boy Scouts Executive Apologizes for Trump’s Speech,” The Roanoke Times, July 28, 2017, ‘Nation and World,’ p.8.

[3] Karni, Annie. “At Ohio Rally, Trump Keeps making Campaign Promises,” Politico, July 25, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/07/25/trump-youngstown-ohio-rally-promises-240967, Accessed July 25, 2017.

[4] Shepard, Steven. “Poll: Half of Trump Voters say Trump Won Popular Vote,” Politico, July 26, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/07/26/trump-clinton-popular-vote-240966?via=newsletter&source=CSAMedition, Accessed July 26, 2017.

[5] Shephard, Steven. “Poll: Half of Trump Voters say Trump Won Popular Vote.”

[6] Phillip, Abby, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mike DeBonis, “Trump Announces that he will Ban Transgender People from Serving in the Military,” The Washington Post, July 26, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-announces-that-he-will-ban-transgender-people-from-serving-in-the-military/2017/07/26/6415371e-723a-11e7-803f-a6c989606ac7_story.html?utm_term=.88f1a9366ce6, Accessed July 26, 2017.