It’s tempting to view President Trump as the end of the American presidential tradition. It’s difficult to imagine George Washington pondering a future president of the United States tweeting out memes of himself clotheslining a CNN-logoed enemy. It would certainly confuse Abraham Lincoln to see the president jabbering about media enemies’ bloody face-lifts and then declaring himself “modern day presidential.” On moving into the White House, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail Adams, “May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”
Yeah, not so much.
But while the media act as though Trump is a shocking break from his predecessors, the fact is that they took the first steps down the path of merging the frivolous and the grave. They began violating public standards long before Trump was ever a presidential contender. Trump defenders aren’t wrong to scoff at Bill Clinton supporters suddenly discovering presidential propriety two decades after defending their favorite’s cigar tricks with a White House intern in the Oval Office. And Barack Obama wasn’t exactly shy about making the media rounds in the most ridiculous way — it was he, after all, who began appearing with GloZell and Pimp With the Limp in order to press forward his political case.
But Trump is indeed something new. He doesn’t even pretend to be presidential. Clinton failed at being presidential, but he still (SET ITAL) wanted (END ITAL) to be seen as a serious human being; Obama tried to position himself as a serious thinker, even as he did his latest ESPN brackets. Trump has no such pretentions — or if he does, his volatile id won’t allow him to stick to them. He’s open and obvious about his disdain for decency and protocol. He spends his days trolling Reddit and 4chan for the latest dank memes to post to his Twitter account, and then he waits with bated breath as his followers cheer themselves hoarse.
So, does any of this matter?
It’s tempting to say that it doesn’t. George W. Bush attempted to restore some honor to the office after Clinton spread his bodily juices all over it. The media savaged him anyway, and called him a nincompoop and a dunce and a humiliation to the office. Obama entered on eagle’s wings and promptly used the bully pulpit to attack his enemies and cover for his friends. What difference does it make whether Trump finally strips the mask off the hoity-toity old boys club that the White House represents?
Actually, it does make a difference.
It makes a difference because while we’re always going to have the rough-and-tumble of politics — and we should, because we live in a free country — there’s a whole generation of Americans who have been gradually acclimated to bad behavior by their leaders. Clinton started us down a dark path. Trump stands at the end of the path, thanks, ironically, to the public’s distaste for the Clintons. Trump could have helped restore a sense of honor to the White House. He didn’t. It’s possible in theory that such a failure could help Americans turn to a sort of small-government libertarianism and say to themselves, “Hey, why give these dolts a bunch of power?” Instead, Americans seem to be saying to themselves: “Hey, why do the other guys get to be awful? Why can’t we do it, too?”
The result: a race to the bottom. That race seems to be accelerating daily now. Again, that’s not Trump’s fault. It’s ours. We ought to demand that our politicians be more than celebrities who enjoy WWE memes or Hollywood-adored figureheads for “woke” talking points. They ought to act out some sort of honor in their Constitutional roles. It’s enough to churn the stomach to imagine the great people who once occupied the halls of power, and then consider what moral Lilliputians now roam there.