I sometimes think about the report from last year when Trump threw a Starburst candy at German chancellor Angela Merkel and said, “Don’t say I never give you anything.” On the one hand, the image itself is irresistibly and guiltily funny. If you consider it on its own, there is a part of your spleen, something about being an American human, that obliges you to revel in that moment. An occasional self-conscious lapse from decorum among the powerful is charming. A well-chosen one can be almost sublime.
But a total insensibility to the dignity of one’s high office is perverse. It’s important to remember that if Barack Obama had done something like that Starburst trick, Republican blatherers would have put it into the great roll-call of unpresidential behavior that includes Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment of an intern, his staffers’ impish removal of the “W” keys on White House computers, Sandy Berger’s alleged “documents in his socks” moment, and Barack Obama’s khaki-suit fiasco. That last one still doesn’t make sense to me.
There’s still a week to go in this normally slow news month, but I’m tapping out. Donald Trump’s August 2019 has had so much sound and fury, it must signify something.
Where to begin? There was the frightening and incongruous grinning and thumbs up over an infant recently orphaned by a mass shooter. He actually took the occasion to remind people his rally in El Paso was more successful than Beto O’Rourke’s. Not long after that, there were the president’s suggestions that his predecessor might have been involved in murdering Jeffrey Epstein. Soon there commenced the weeks-long reality-TV-quality spat with former spokesman Anthony Scaramucci. Each one of these would normally, on its own, be a scandal large enough to be recalled in the first paragraphs summing up a president’s mixed legacy. For Trump it’s just a few days.
There was the leak of Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark. For those who know a little history, acquiring this extension of North America makes some strategic sense and has interested several presidents. For those with a sense of humor, there should be an ability to appreciate Trump’s acquisitiveness leading him to the truth on the matter. But then the big galoot couldn’t take a hint that Denmark isn’t interested in such a sale, and he caused a needlessly embarrassing diplomatic fight over it.
More recently, Trump is promoting claims that Israelis “love him like he’s the King of Israel” and “love him like he’s the second coming of God.” A few days later he is tweeting about the chairman of the Federal Reserve: “My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman Xi?” And then absurdly proclaiming, “The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP. Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China . . .”
I know what you’re thinking: Judges! But the judges!
Sure. They’re great. Fine. Whatever. Let’s get back to the subject at hand.
I remember sort of rolling my eyes when, 20 years ago, George W. Bush kept repeating that he would “restore honor and dignity” to the White House, a big applause line. He would even raise his hand, like he was taking an oath. But Trump is wearing out not just my patience but my cynicism and giving me a deeper appreciation for decorum.
It is supremely doubtful that Trump’s successors could sustain his new anti-norms; Trump’s combination of shamelessness and stamina is blessedly rare. Most normal people still know better than to just be themselves, warts and all, when entrusted with responsibility.
We need decorum because human beings are almost too malleable. We habituate ourselves to anything. Even this presidency. The constant break from the norm doesn’t just make the president perverse; it does something to us too.
Not long before he died, William F. Buckley was commenting on the state of conservatism. He longed for the repristination of its ideas. His word, of course. We have to be honest with ourselves. We’re not going to get to return to anything pristine, we’re not going to have the time for serious reflection or thought at all, if we let this jackanapes in the Oval Office have all the attention he covets. “Jackanapes” is another Buckley word in need of recovery.