Donald Trump likes to tweet. Donald Trump likes to attack. Like many New Yorkers, he believes that the best defense is to be offensive. He has attacked the media as “enemies of the people;” he has attacked the intelligence services. He has now attacked a former president, Barack Obama. And he did this in an early morning tweet.
During the campaign, Trump attacked Hillary Clinton – “Lock her up” – but that can eventually be explained by the nature of political campaigns. But for a sitting president to attack a predecessor is unheard of in modern politics. Trump tweeted: "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!," Is this attack beyond even “new normal”?
(I will not apologize for continuing to write about Donald Trump. For those who spoke about how “presidential” Trump appeared in his speech before Congress, as well as those who implied that perhaps many had panicked about the insidiousness of Trump, I only ask that they look at the assumptions they are accepting and the nefarious consequences his presidency will have around the world. To not be outraged by Trump is to have lost a moral compass, to have abandoned hope for the rule of law if not any morality in politics.)
Recently, I was surprised when a former U.S. diplomat said he would have attended the Inauguration if he had been serving in Congress. For him, the institution of the presidency had to be preserved in spite of his personal opinion of the person in office.
Trump has not respected the institution. In his inaugural address, he said he would defend the American people. The oath of office says: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." As an outlier, and one not beholding to a political party, Trump is obviously anti-institutional. Many of his cabinet nominees are against the policies of the departments they will be heading. But, he has sworn to uphold one institution, the Constitution, and hence to defend the rule of law.
Trump uses Twitter. He prefers to go to Florida on weekends rather than go to the traditional presidential retreat of Camp David. He is untraditional. As I wrote in a previous blog, he is in many ways a truly 21st century president. But to be an outlier is not the same as delegitimizing institutions. There are certain institutions/traditions that are worth preserving. The rule of law would be one. Without that, the very essence of any republic falls apart. While certain processes may change through technology such as voting electronically, voting itself is non-negotiable in a democratic country. That cannot be changed. There is a difference between form and content.
What happens when the form overwhelms the content? By denigrating a former president with no presentable evidence, Donald Trump has gone beyond merely calling into question arcane practices. He combined a baseless attack against a former president with a snide denigration of Arnold Schwarzenegger, as if the two belonged together.
The modern Republican Party is a conservative party. It is a party that is closely tied to traditions. What will be the reaction of Republicans to the latest and most outlandish declaration from the sitting president? I have a feeling that beyond the normal outcry from the opposition party, the Democrats, some Republicans may react to Trump’s outlandish behavior. And if that happens, we could see the beginning of a backlash against his style and content.
There are moments in history that can turn quickly. A vendor in Tunisia igniting himself set off the Arab Spring. Or Joseph Welch asking Joseph McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency?” during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearing that pricked the bubble of the Communist witch hunt.
For those who thought Trump was finally being presidential during his speech to Congress, be aware. Simply reading from a teleprompter words written by others does not make a president, even in our age of Twitter. Joseph Welch’s question to Joseph McCarthy remains pertinent today. The larger question is whether the concept of decency has become outdated.