The Measure of Trump’s Devotion

On Memorial Day, as the nation turned to the president to lead its shared rituals of unity and common purpose, he revealed himself unequal to the office he holds.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

Memorial Day is for the living: for those who mourn, for those who remember, for those who carry upon their bodies and souls the scars of war. It is the opportunity for society to express gratitude. That is not only a duty to the past. It’s a commitment to the future—because Memorial Day speaks not only to those who have sacrificed in the past, but to those who may be called on to sacrifice in years to come.

“To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” is a promise not denominated only in dollars and cents. We commit spiritually, too, to do our limited human best to understand and appreciate the losses and suffering imposed by the defense of the nation.

It is the responsibility and honor of the president to speak for the nation on the solemn occasions of collective remembrance. Some presidents are endowed with greater natural eloquence than others, but that does not matter. What the country listens for is the generous and authentic message underneath the rhetoric, whether that rhetoric is graceful or clumsy. The last general to win the presidency said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” The country heard those words, believed them, and trusted him.

The 45th president is often described—and sometimes praised—as “authentic.” That compliment, if it is a compliment, is not truly deserved. In many ways, President Trump is not the man he seems. He was not a great builder, not a great dealmaker, not a billionaire, not a man of strength and decisiveness.

But there is one way in which he truly is authentic: He is never able to play-act the generous feelings that he so absolutely lacks. “To show an unfelt sorrow is an office which the false man does easy.” In that one sense, Donald Trump is not false. He does not feel sorrow for others, and he does not try to pretend otherwise.

Trump’s perfect emptiness of empathy has revealed itself again and again through his presidency, but never as completely and conspicuously as in his self-flattering 2018 Memorial Day tweets. They exceed even the heartless comment in a speech to Congress—in the presence of a grieving widow—that a fallen Navy Seal would be happy that his ovation from Congress had lasted longer than anybody else’s.

It’s not news that there is something missing from Trump where normal human feelings should go. His devouring need for admiration from others is joined to an extreme, even pathological, inability to return any care or concern for those others. But Trump’s version of this disconnect comes most especially to the fore at times of national ritual.

Donald Trump cares enormously about national symbols—the flag, the anthem—when he can use them to belittle, humiliate, and exclude.

Trump has called for revoking the citizenship of those who burn the flag. He has suggested that NFL players who do not rise for the Star-Spangled Banner should be deported. He scored one of the greatest victories of his presidency when the National Football League submitted to his demand to punish players who did not stand at attention for the anthem. Vice President Pence ran the victory lap for Trump on this one.

But when it comes time to lead the nation in its shared rituals of unity and common purpose, Donald Trump cannot do it. He is, at most, president of slightly more than half of white America, and often not even that.

What happens then if the country should find itself in a moment when national leadership is required? A mass-casualty terrorist attack, a natural disaster that takes many lives, a crisis that might lead to war, a war itself? Trump’s decisions are leading the country toward possible conflict in the Korean Peninsula and against Iran.

What if that leadership actually arrives at the brink of outright conflict? How can a president who only grabs credibly ask others for sacrifice? How can the most untrustworthy man ever to hold the office effectively summon anyone to follow him? Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address spoke of “the warm courage of national unity.” There will never be any such thing under a Trump presidency, and the fault lines embittered by Trump’s ceaseless provocations will shatter in a real national crisis.

On every Memorial Day, Americans should pray for peace. On this Memorial Day and the next, and the one after that, Americans should pray with extra fervor—because war, if it comes, will come under the leadership of a man unequal to the job.