Trump’s failure to accomplish little or any of his agenda during his first 100 days is striking. But we should not forget the vast harm he has done in this comparatively short time – especially his degradation of the presidency.
From early in the Republic, we have looked at the office of the president as a focal point for the nation’s values. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and his Teddy’s fifth cousin, Franklin, are studied by school children as both exemplars of what it means to be president and of the moral authority of the office. It is not merely what these men accomplished, but how they did it; not just their policies but their positive effects on the institutions of democratic governance.
True, many of our presidents have fallen short of those ideals. But our disappointments in them largely reflect the high expectations we have of those who hold that office.
But not until Trump has the moral authority of the office disappeared.
I’m old enough to recall when John F. Kennedy invited the world’s great artists, writers, and philosophers to dine at the White House. The nation felt ennobled. Donald Trump invites Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent, who once called President Obama a “mongrel,” and we feel sullied.
But it has not just been Trump’s vulgarity.
There have also been Trump’s lies – blatant, continuous, and unsubstantiated even after the lack of evidence has been pointed out repeatedly. They are not just any lies, but lies that deepen Americans’ suspicion of one another and undermine our confidence in our system of government – such as his repeated contention that “three to five million” people voted illegally in the last election, or that Obama spied on him during the campaign.
Prior presidents have embellished the truth and on occasion have lied about a particular important thing, such as the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But before Trump we have never had a president who chronically lies, whose lies have become an integral part of his presidency even in the first 100 days.
We have also been confronted with Trump’s vast family business, from which he continues to benefit even though the decisions he makes in office affect the what he earns, and the almost certain decisions by foreign governments to curry favor with him by bestowing benefits on his business. He shrugs off such conflicts – even refusing to release his tax returns, even inviting his daughter and son-in-law, each with their own businesses and conflicts of interest, to join him at the highest reaches of the White House.
Some presidents have profited from their presidencies after they leave office through large speaking fees and book contracts. But never before Trump have we had a president for whom conflicts of financial interest during his presidency are flagrant yet ignored.
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The first 100 days has also been marked by Trump’s divisiveness – turning Americans against each other, legitimizing hatefulness toward Mexican-Americans and Muslim-Americans and African-Americans, fueling violence between his supporters and his opponents.
We have had divisive elections before. But after them, other presidents have sought to heal the wounds. Even after the horrors of the Civil War, Lincoln famously asked us to come together without malice. Trump, by contrast, encourages warring camps – calling his opponents “enemies” and suggesting that they are plotting against his administration, and staging rallies to encourage and fuel his bedrock supporters.
We have also seen Trump’s necessary cruelty – toward refugees, undocumented immigrants, and the poor among us. He has issued a budget that would deeply harm the least advantaged Americans, and supported a repeal of the Affordable Care Act that would also hurt those most in need.
He has refused asylum to refugees at a time when the world faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and unleashed immigration enforcers on 11 million residents of the United States, many of whom have been productive members of their communities for years. He has even deported people who have been here since childhood and know know no other nation.
Other presidents have on occasion been cruel. But Trump’s cruelty defies reason. It is utterly unnecessary.
There has also been Trump’s affect on the rest of the world – legitimizing crude nationalism and hateful xenophobia. He has promoted France’s Marine Le Pen and encouraged authoritarians such as Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, while at the same time confusing our democratic allies and friends.
Finally, there is Donald Trump himself – who in the first 100 days as president has shown himself to be narcissistic, xenophobic, paranoid, vindictive, and thin-skinned; who takes credit for the work of others and blames others for his own failings; who lashes out at the press and journalists when they criticize him, and who demonizes judges who disagree with him.
We have before had presidents such as Richard Nixon whose personality defects harmed their presidencies and tainted the office of the president. But Donald Trump is in a different league altogether. He exhibits the opposite of every civic virtue ever encouraged in our school rooms, town halls, and churches.
The first 100 days is an artificial landmark for presidents. But it does offer an opportunity to pause and assess what they have done. Too often, though, we think in the narrow gauge of policies and legislation.
With Trump, it’s important to think more broadly. Among the most significant legacies of his first 100 days is his degrading of the moral authority of the office of the president, and, thereby, of America.