White House

Americans Want Their President to Have a Little Class

President Trump greets supporters at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 21, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Which doesn’t mean they want a king or saint who rules from on high.

One of the really interesting features of Donald Trump is that, though he is extremely rich, he does not really come across that way. Despite the fact that he has never been one to hide his wealth — he lived a massive, opulent penthouse high atop Fifth Avenue — many average Americans identify with him.

This is quite an ironic juxtaposition, due in large part to Trump’s manners and his style of speaking. It points to Trump’s (often overlooked) skills as a politician. But what about when Trump personally attacks people on Twitter? Is it proper for the president to behave in such a manner? Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted this week that Trump’s low tone on social media is perfectly consistent with what our Founders envisioned:

We have been duped into viewing politicians as royalty when our Founders intended them to be only temp public servants. Complaints @realDonaldTrump is not “presidential” are because he acts like one of us — exactly why our Founders fought in Rev War to win independence from royalty.

First of all, speaking as “one of us,” I try very hard not to insult people on Twitter, even though I have long been a regular user of the site. And when I do insult people, I am quick to offer an embarrassed apology. Trump’s approach to Twitter is not something I can identify with at all. And I know a lot of Trump voters who are deeply chagrined by his use of social media. Public opinion polls bear this out: A lot of his voters wish that he would cut it out.

Falwell was responding to complaints made by many, including me, that Trump has diminished the civil discourse. Falwell’s rejoinder is that this is a good thing, and that it’s consistent with the Framers’ view of how the government should function.

Yet Falwell’s history is off. He is no doubt correct that our Founders tried to protect republican government from becoming royal government, but they also hoped our leaders would act with virtue, dignity, modesty, and grace.

We can appreciate this most clearly in the personage of George Washington, whom everybody at the Constitutional Convention knew would be the first president. He was most certainly not “one of us,” as Falwell put it. Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee came closer to the mark when, in eulogizing the late president, he said that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington did not see himself as a king — endowed by God with the authority to rule. But he did see himself as the tribune of the nation — endowed by his fellow countrymen with the authority to rule. And the noble bearing that he brought to the office of president reflected what he perceived as the nobility of the people themselves.

A favorite Washington anecdote of mine illustrates this point well. It may be apocryphal, but it had been passed around at various points through the 19th century, so it is very possibly true (and it certainly has a ring of truth to it). Martin van Buren included a version of it, which he received in a letter, in a book on political parties that was published after his death:

When the Convention to form a Constitution was sitting in Philadelphia in 1787, of which General Washington was President, he had stated evenings to receive the calls of his friends. At an interview between Hamilton, the Morrises (Gouverneur and Robert), and others, the former remarked that Washington was reserved and aristocratic even to his intimate friends, and allowed no one to be familiar with him. Gouverneur Morris said that was a mere fancy, and he could be as familiar with Washington as with any of his other friends. Hamilton replied, “If you will, at the next reception evening, gently slap him on the shoulder and say, ‘My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well!’ a supper and wine shall be provided for you and a dozen of your friends.”

The challenge was accepted. On the evening appointed a large number attended, and at an early hour Gouverneur Morris entered, bowed, shook hands, laid his left hand on Washington’s shoulder, and said: “My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well!” Washington withdrew his hand, stepped suddenly back, fixed his eye on Morris for several minutes with an angry frown, until the latter retreated abashed and sought refuge in the crowd. The company looked on in silence.

At the supper which was provided by Hamilton, Morris said: “I have won the bet but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”

Washington was thoroughly republican; right down to his bones he hated aristocratic privilege, but he was exceedingly careful in how he approached public life. Aware of his role in the body politic as the man whom all of his fellow citizens admired, he sought to maintain a respectful distance in all his doings.

Falwell is right that America’s Founders worried in the early days about aristocracy or monarchy corrupting the republic, but that does not mean they wanted leaders to be profane or slovenly. Rather, they hoped that representatives would come from, in the words of James Madison, a subset of the citizenry, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” In this way, they would not be removed from their fellow citizens, dictating terms to the people as a monarch does; they would be the best of the people, and thus be able to “refine and enlarge the public views,” just as Washington sought to do.

Even Andrew Jackson, arguably our first democratic president, and a predecessor Trump has frequently cited with admiration, was a war hero. He was seen as an example of the best of America. And Jackson, like Washington before him, had a bearing in public that reinforced this image.

Just because we want our president to act with a little class does not mean we are secretly pining for monarchical government. The Founders had a similar view, for a decidedly republican reason: The dignity of the occupant of the presidential office should reflect the dignity of the American people.

IN THE NEWS: ‘Trump Defends Paul Manafort as a “Good Person”’

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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