To: Donald Trump
Subject: The Very Least a Leader Must Do
Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush presented themselves as very different leaders, but like Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush before them, they understood and discharged at least one responsibility of their office: signaling that no racial or ethnic group should ever become an object of national demonization. For all the inexcusable civil-liberties abuses over which President Bush presided after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many targeting Muslims and Muslim Americans, he acquitted himself admirably in the many public statements in which he made it clear that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are peaceful, patriotic people who ought never to be harassed or harmed by bigots of any sort.
President Obama, who has also transgressed inexcusably against the civil liberties of Americans, excels in that same way, and has always spoken about race in a responsible manner that emphasizes shared values, purposes, and humanity. For an older example of a political leader operating in this tradition, look at George H.W. Bush discussing illegal immigration in a debate with Ronald Reagan:
The point isn’t his position, it’s his insistence that, whatever one thinks about immigration policy, it concerns human beings, all of whom deserve dignity and compassion.
America’s elites have never been models of noblesse oblige, but every president who has served in my lifetime felt a form of this responsibility, some because they were so little removed from the Japanese internment that Ronald Reagan apologized for in 1988. “Here we admit a wrong,” he declared after Congress passed a reparations bill. “Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
Taking special care with regard to the most horrific way that populism can go wrong—that is not a lot to ask of a leader. Here’s Senator John McCain recoiling in 2008 when one of his supporters, intending insult, called Barack Obama a secret Arab:
It’s as simple as that—his words aren’t even the point so much as the signal that he sent.
Sending it is a conservative act of caution.
That’s how responsible leaders behave in a country where the civil liberties of many minority groups, including your own German ancestors, have in the past been abrogated; in a world where prosperous countries sometimes descend into civil war over ethnic strife; in the context of a recent history that includes Hutus stirred to brutal genocide by mass media; and in a present in which a white supremacist massacres black worshippers, ISIS declares religious minorities to be fair game for rape, and hate crimes abound, including one perpetrated by a couple of your supporters against a homeless Hispanic man.
No one expects America to descend into Balkan-style strife. That is partly because, during the modern era, even many of our worst leaders have learned enough from history to act responsibly at least in this one way.
But not you, Donald. You just don’t get it. That was clear the moment you started exaggerating the crimes committed by Mexican immigrants. It was even clearer last week after your exchange with a New Hampshire voter. And it is perhaps clearest from your clueless response to the controversy, which continued through the weekend.
You remember that exchange from last week:
Voter: We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one.
Voter: You know he’s not even an American.
Trump: We need this question. This is the first question!
Voter: But anyway, we have training camps brewing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of ’em?
Trump: We're going to be looking at a lot of different things. A lot of people are saying that, and you know, a lot of people are saying bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
The appropriate response to a voter like that is simple enough. “Sir, President Obama is not actually a Muslim. What’s more, he is an American. There are no known terrorist training camps in the United States, and if one was discovered, the Obama Administration would aggressively shut it down. And there is never a time when the United States will get rid of American citizens with inalienable rights to life and liberty, nor would I want to get rid of Muslim Americans even if it was totally legal. They are my friends, neighbors, and business associates. Some put on uniforms and fight for this country. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding patriots.”
That is what a responsible man would say.
You encouraged his paranoid delusions!
Later, you defended yourself, saying, “Am I morally obligated to defend the president every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don't think so!”
You’re not generally obliged to defend President Obama. Your obligation, rather, is to refute rather than encourage bigotry or paranoia directed against ethnic minority groups on occasions when they’re voiced right in front of your face with millions watching.
That is the bare minimum required of a statesman. A belated, pro-forma “I love the Muslims” doesn’t cut it.
“This is the first time in my life,” you continued, “that I have caused controversy by NOT saying something.” That is because you’ve always been a publicity hound real-estate developer and blowhard reality-television star. When you were operating in the same cultural space as The Real Housewives of Orange County and Jersey Shore, there wasn’t any danger of your stirring up the worst kind of social conflict.
Now you’re heading a mass political movement as a charismatic populist.
The fact that you don’t seem to grasp that anything else changed as a result, that you are aggressively clueless about the burdens of the job that you’re seeking, discredits you.
Now, a lot of the things that discredit you are no worse than what discredits most politicians. But this one thing is different. When you gain politically by demonizing ethnic groups, or by pandering to those who do, you go from arguably likable eccentric to villain. You go from having kids who think “my dad’s a bit embarrassing, but he means well” to kids who’ll feel ashamed of what you stirred up for years after you leave politics. Those are the best case scenarios. The worst-case scenario is remote, but horrific: that’s where you’re the careless fool who ends the legacy of mostly responsible behavior on this issue, loses control of the forces you’re enabling, and watches in horror as your actions harm a lot of innocents.
Is that going to happen?
Probably not, but the fact that you seem willing to risk it for a few points of support in a political campaign makes you execrable in a way that many politicians aren’t.
And that is saying something.
You surround yourself with some sensible people outside politics. Ask George H. Ross and Carolyn Kepcher what they think of your conduct with regard to this issue.
Ask your daughter, Ivanka. Consult a few risk-managers.
And when they admonish you, change your behavior, if only so that your associates and family members don’t have to be ashamed of it. Doing so doesn’t require you to be dishonest, or politically correct, or to adopt any policy position anathema to you—it just requires you to refute a few poisonous, demonstrably false delusions. “It's something I don't want to talk about,” you told George Stephanopolous over the weekend. “I want to talk about the vets and the military. I want to talk about jobs.” You don’t seem to understand that responsible presidents sometimes talk about things they’d rather not discuss, for the sake of the country.
You seem to lack that capacity. Why? Absent a change in behavior, your staffers (yes, I’m talking to you!) should consider whether their consciences compel them to resign.
No one should work to elevate a man who can’t clear this lowest of bars.