Our text for today is taken from the movie “Hud,” spoken by Homer Bannon, Hud’s father, “…little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.”
I haven’t looked at any Most Popular Male American polls recently, but it’s fair to say that the current occupant of the White House is popular with a substantial portion of the American public. Sixty percent may not think much of him, but 40 percent apparently does. The reception he appears to get at his rallies indicates that a great number of men and women support him with heartfelt enthusiasm.
Needless to say, I think that’s a shame. I’m not going to catalog all of the behavioral and character flaws the President exhibits. They’re all too evident for everyone to see. Considering his public behavior and demeanor, and reports of what he says and does in private, we have a pretty clear picture of him. I know he’s probably nice to his grandchildren and his youngest son, but really, having said that, the list of positive traits seems exhausted.
Back in the early 1970s, when the public release of the White House transcripts revealed Richard Nixon’s private utterances made in his secretly recorded conversations in the Oval Office and on the telephone, public outrage exploded. The idea that a President would use expletives so extravagantly and denigrate other public figures, not to mention compiling an “enemies list”: All of that was met with bewilderment and anger by the media and the general public.
Americans expected better of their President. He (Presidents were always men back then) was expected to be a moral leader, set an example, be someone we would all look up to and respect whether we liked him or not. Nixon, of course, had an unsavory past, but he was supposed to be a “new Nixon” when he took office in 1969. As it turned out, what we got was old wine in a new bottle.
My point, however, is that Americans wouldn’t and didn’t tolerate Nixon’s bad behavior—most of which, by the way, was displayed in private, although on rare occasions we saw flashes of the “old” Nixon in public.
What is of concern now is not so much the current President’s behavior, which is contemptible, but that the public tolerates it, and many—which is to say millions of—Americans apparently agree with him and approve of it. By dint of his utterances and actions Trump has elevated yahoos to a position of authority.
We’ve seen this before, of course. Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s plain spokenness, his racism and anti-intellectualism won him the 1972 Democratic primary in five states, including Michigan and Maryland. Wallace, however, did not win the Democratic nomination, and he was not elected President.
Most candidates for President appeal to the better angels of our nature. Not the occupant of the White House today. He is constantly creating grievances and evoking images of a humiliated America being laughed at the rest of the world because of, among other things, our foolish, naive generosity. Well, all of that has supposedly stopped. The world isn’t laughing at us anymore! Fear is the new message we want to broadcast—fear us.
Where is that Shining City on a Hill with “the eyes of all people…upon us”? How are we an example to other nations? With the current President’s public approval of autocratic leaders in other countries—from Russia, Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey and some would say Israel—we have officially stopped commending and publicly supporting liberal democratic practices. Bare knuckled force, violation of civil rights and civil liberties for citizens and corruption are all the order of the day.
Trump has lowered the bar for future Presidents on what is permissible for them to say and do. Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, we won’t banish the precedent that Trump has set. That is the danger: Outrage ultimately yields to indifference and then to acquiescence. The unacceptable eventually becomes normal. We must resist that progression, although it isn’t difficult to see how we get worn down by the daily emissions of toxic behavior.
Just as professional football, with all of its posturing players and programmed violence, has replaced baseball as America’s favorite sport, we have seen a coarsening of our public discourse and the staged display of violence on “reality” television. No private matter is too embarrassing to be put on display. Thanks to cable television no words, no matter how profane, cannot be spoken. Once there were manners and conventions to be observed in public discourse. They are disappearing.
We are not becoming a kinder, gentler nation. Surely the past two plus years have dispelled any notion that the United States won’t respond to the siren song of a demagogue.
The next President may step back to what we expect from our leader, but America’s dark forces have found their sunshine and won’t be crawling back into their hole just because their cheerleader has left the field.