Monday, March 20, 2017

Where Is The Outrage?

“Father, I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.” (George Washington)

“Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! … How low has President Obama gone … This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” (Donald Trump)

George Washington was our greatest President of the United States. My assessment is not only due to the long list of the accomplishments by which we usually measure presidential success, though he certainly had many. Successful businessman (perhaps our richest); a commanding general achieving victory against overwhelming odds; respected governmental leader.

But Washington’s biggest contribution was in being the first president, a job without precedence or model anywhere in the then-known world. In a world that had known only kings, he instead made the head-of-state into a people’s job, a role cast in ceremony without being regal, elected by the will of the people, serving for a limited time, turning it over to the next duly-elected person, and then going home. His high personal character would also define the character of the office: honest, above moral reproach, tolerant of dissent in spite of how exasperating, protective of the personal liberty that had fueled the Revolution and broken from the throne. He was the epitome of the aspirations of the American ideal, but also decided on being called “Mr. President” (versus John Adams’ recommendation of “Your Highness”). Ultimate respect for the office balanced with the (un-)common man. A mythic persona creating a mythic office, he and his service have been the precedent, and set the bar, for all Presidents since.

Fast forward 228 years from the First to the Forty-fifth President. To a President with a factually documented track record of outright lies on almost a daily basis. Lies about the trivial (crowd sizes; people and that are supposed “failures”; television shows). Lies about objective data (trends in murder rates; unemployment rates; voter fraud). Lies about the important (terrorist threat levels; fake news; terror events in Sweden). A continuing penchant for exaggeration and “alternative facts” until the day finally arrived when his knee-jerk obsession with Twitter sent him far beyond the boundaries of rationality acceptability.

March 4th was the day a sitting President Trump accused his predecessor, former President Obama, of the criminal act of illegally wire-tapping his phones. It was an accusation made with no proof offered whatsoever. An accusation that, if shown to be untrue, would constitute a criminal act of defamation of character and libel against Trump himself. The President of the United States commands a legion of agencies and professionals dedicated to obtaining information for decision-makers. Yet it was acknowledged weeks later that Trump’s accusations were based upon several unsubstantiated “news” reports that Trump made no effort to investigate and confirm/deny. He just made his charge without making a verifiable case. Any law-school student could have adequately counseled his client of the probable consequences and predictable outcomes of such a foolhardy move; apparently Trump chose not to seek any such counsel.

After distracting the country and the Congress for two wasted weeks of chasing our tails in circles, the truth is in. According to the House Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader, the co-chairs of both the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees, Trump’s own Department of Justice and the FBI, there has been no evidence found anywhere of wiretapping. There is not even an ability for a sitting President to order such a wiretap. Yet the lie from Trump continues unabated with legalistic wordsmithing by his frustrated and exhausted communications team. Instead of dealing with many pressing and divisive issues of critical substance (e.g. healthcare; national budget; jobs; security), energy is being wasted on a President who has been caught in a lie of his own making and who is unwilling to face up to the Truth, admit his error, and accept the consequences for the damage he has done to people’s reputations (including President Obama and members of the intelligence community).

This lie, and the other lies, are consistent with conduct we have watched from this individual all of his life. Except now this is happening on a much larger scale, performed on a bigger stage, with far greater consequences. As a mediocre television reality show performer, this pattern of exaggeration, outrageous claims, and lies could perhaps be laughed at as passing entertainment. As President, this conduct is damaging to the whole of what America has tried to represent, and deserves to be denounced – even by politicians currently afraid to take a moral stand. I do not say that as exaggerated hyperbole and overstatement. I say that because for 228 years the Presidency of the United States has always been charged to set the example of, and the standard for, our collective values and moral compass. Values and a moral compass that transcend and frame the details of coming and going government programs, legislation and political squabbles. And the greatest of these values is Trust. Lies, and continually acting without calm thoughtfulness, erodes Trust, at some point beyond repair.

This current outrage is no longer just “Trump being Trump.” Even if you supported his campaign promises, even if you think our government is due some kind of comeuppance, this is not how it is done. This is dangerous stuff from a man who has so many levers of governmental power at his disposal; will he choose to use them as Richard Nixon did? The day will come when a true emergency shows up at our collective doorstep (e.g. 9-11; invasion of Iraq; financial breakdown) and Trump will need the people to truly support him. Whether he gets that support in a time of crisis will depend upon our Trust in him as an individual. Trust his explanation of the facts, and trust why we need to react as he proposes. It is in the first 100 days that Presidents create the people’s trust or not – a decision that is carried throughout their presidency. What will we decide about this President?

In the end, every presidency comes down to Character. Given a good heart and moral character, plus a reasonable level of competency, mostly good things stand a chance to flow. Conversely, bad things will generally flow from bad character – as it is with all of us. Yet today it seems our collective desire for political power, lower taxes, and personal and economic security trump our expectations for decency and honesty. As parents, we try very hard to instill good character into our children. Telling the truth, and taking responsibility for our words and actions, are fundamental components of building that character. Can we honestly say that any of us can point our children to Donald Trump and say, “This is your role model. This is what, and who, I hope you will aspire to be?” Where is our outrage when we see the occupant of the highest leadership position in the country, in the world, act contrary to everything we are trying to teach to, or expect of, our own children? Regardless of the side of the political fence on which we live, where is our condemnation of unethical conduct?

The Presidency of the United States is a position defined by law, by the historical precedents of the forty-four people who have served in that role, by ceremony and tradition, and by being the embodiment of the highest aspirations of Americans – aspirations that have inspired people across the globe. Donald Trump was right in raising the specter of Nixon & Watergate and of Joseph McCarthy. But what he does not see is that he is the Nixon wiretapping his own phones, and defending his claim with a McCarthy-style series of compounding “big lies.” For that he has violated our Trust and our aspirations. Where is our outrage?

©   2017   Randy Bell