Letters: Even More Unthinkable Moments

Readers continue to share what they would add to The Atlantic’s list of moments that define an improbable presidency—and share their views on how these moments will shape the president’s legacy.

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with children on Christmas Eve in 2017. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Unthinkable: 50 Moments That Define an Improbable Presidency

This week marks the halfway point of Donald Trump’s presidency. “Like many Americans, we sometimes find the velocity of chaos unmanageable,” Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, wrote in his introduction to a special project taking stock of Trump’s first two years as president. “So we decided to pause for a moment and analyze 50 of the most improbable, norm-bending, and destructive incidents of this presidency to date.”

We asked readers: Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list?

Here’s how readers responded. (This is the second post featuring readers’ responses to “Unthinkable.” Read the first one here.)

Some readers were struck by President Trump’s insensitivity:
“For me,” Douglas S. McGill of Ontario, Canada, wrote, “nothing touches the utterly unbelievable claim by Trump that if present during the Parkland shooting, he would have rushed in unarmed to save students from the shooter.” For someone who “knows nothing of bravery or service,” McGill continued, the comment amounted to “slimy self-promotion” in the wake of a tragedy.

Christine Lowrie of Clearwater, Florida, cited a moment from before Trump became president. At a 2016 campaign rally in Redding, California, the future president “sought to tout his support among African Americans … by pointing out a black man in the crowd and saying, ‘Look at my African American.’”

One reader agreed with Megan Garber’s point that it’s not just the president who undermines facts—the people he surrounds himself with do, too:
Christopher Lett from Easton, Pennsylvania, wrote: “The entire governing philosophy of the Trump administration is neatly encapsulated” by Rudy Giuliani “emphatically declaring” that “Truth isn’t truth!”

Trump has the ability to make fun things less fun, two readers said:
For Irene Maxfield of San Antonio, Texas, Trump questioning a child’s belief in Santa Claus was one of the most unthinkable moments of his presidency thus far.

“I know this is trivial,” Rachel Teplow of New York, New York, wrote, “but I just cannot get over” the fact that Trump “gets two scoops of ice cream while everyone else gets one. What kind of terrible person does this?! Why does it matter how much everyone else has as long as he gets enough? It just bespeaks a unique level of awfulness.”

Finally, one reader commented on the legacy that Trump will leave behind:
Reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece, and then the subsequent 50 unthinkable moments, it becomes clear that it is not the bending of norms that should have us alarmed—it is our incremental desensitization to what constitutes a norm at all.

Because as I worked my way through this partial list, I realized how many of these extraordinary departures from protocol, precedent, and civility had completely slipped my mind. As individuals like me, the media, and all the talking heads find ourselves distracted by each day’s new absurdity—as if we had only so much capacity for outrage—yesterday’s despicable act or omission is quickly lost to memory. Each small violation imperceptibly shifts the curve of our tolerance toward apathy and numbness.

Perhaps Trump’s most lasting legacy is how his comportment has demeaned and debased the majesty of the Oval Office. I wonder if the presidency will ever again convey the gravitas and mystique and moral weight, the aura of quiet and competent power, that befits the United States’ preeminent role in the world. His pandering vacillation, his lack of a moral compass and consistent philosophy, and his inveterate and pathological lying have robbed his words of all authority. Very few take him seriously; every pronouncement is discounted, even ignored. His juvenile behavior has contaminated Congress as well, where hyper-partisanship, childish name-calling, and a winner-take-all mentality have made the average voter utterly cynical about the entire political class. Politics is the art of compromise, but compromise doesn’t happen when only the loudest voices get rewarded.

Of course, Trump’s worst legacy will be his contempt for fact-based argument and his ignorance of science. Climate change is the singular existential challenge of our times. Future generations will look back on his four years in office (we can only hope it stops at four!) with deep despair and utter loathing. Time is getting shorter and the stakes higher, yet nothing gets done. We need leadership, not smirking quips. There was a time when the president of the United States had the moral authority and the competence to provide that leadership. Both have been squandered under Trump. His successor will have a hard job restoring them. It will not help that the solutions to climate change will, by then, need to be that much more draconian and politically unpalatable.

Even after Trump leaves office, his hulking, scowling, belligerent shadow will continue to hang over us all.

Dr. Brian P. H. Green
Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada