I wanted him to say the right words.
I was under no illusions that he would believe them. I know far too well who he is to think that. But I wanted him to say the right words.
On Saturday, someone wrote for him words that were, if not right, at least good enough. He started to read them. But he couldn’t help himself. He had to ad lib, the way he always does when someone tries to get him to say the right and decent thing. “On many sides, on many sides,” he added. With those very few words, he undermined all that was right in his prepared remarks.
And that is why he said them.
Even after that, as I read others commenting that it was too late to undo what he had done, that the right words would be worthless now, I still found myself wanting him to say the right words.
So when on Monday he finally said the right words, even though I knew he didn’t mean them, there was still a part of me that was glad they had finally been said. It was better than nothing (so far down has the bar now been lowered).
And then came the Tuesday press conference. That was not Trump “going rogue.” It was Trump showing who he is. He planned to do that. He planned to defend his original remarks. He pulled the printed comments from his pocket, because he intended to say what he said. He planned to undermine the right words he had spoken the day before. He had been browbeaten into saying the right words, and he hated it. Once again, he could not help himself. He had to say all parties were to blame.
I was not surprised, but I was still horrified. And I wondered why.
“Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” That line by La Rochefoucauld came to me. I realized that what most offended me about “on many sides” was that Trump was failing a basic obligation of leadership. He did not pay tribute to virtue.
A leader’s job is to challenge people to do better, to remind them of the nation’s ideals and challenge them to get closer to living them. He should have said, clearly and unequivocally, “there is no place for white supremacy and bigotry in this country,” even though we know there has often been not just a place for those things, but a large and dominant one. Even though he has shown repeatedly that he is a bigot, even though he does not believe them, he had a responsibility to say the right words. It was his job. It would be hypocritical, yes, but he needed to pay that tribute to virtue. No president ever has or ever will be perfect. Every president still has an obligation to urge us to be more perfect than we are. At such times, the job of the president is not to tell us how things really are. The job is to hold up as a goal that virtuous ideal that none of us fully reach, to challenge us to be better.
As Republican strategist Rick Wilson is fond of saying, there is no better Trump. But there can be a better America. We can go in many different directions, and which path we take depends in part on leadership. But no, there is no better Trump. His overwhelming narcissism means he cannot conceive of people better than himself. His cynicism, his vulgarity, his base nature are universal traits in his mind. His entire campaign was based on the idea that while he was, of course, perfectly awful, so was everyone else. They were “lyin’,” they were “crooked,” they were “little,” they were “low energy.” So what if he was all that and more? He at least admitted how base he was. That was his thoroughly phony claim to authenticity.
Of course he had to say everyone is to blame—because then no one is truly to blame. He reflexively sides with awful people because he is an awful person who wants to believe everyone else is as awful as he is. He never takes responsibility for his awfulness, so why should he assign responsibility to them—particularly when they support him?
In the end, he simply would not pay vice’s tribute to virtue. He does not really believe there IS virtue, so he cannot sincerely challenge us to be virtuous.
The whole world to him is merely a reflection of himself—self-interested and self-serving, doing whatever it takes to get some advantage over one’s enemies, winning at all costs. He has shown repeatedly that he defines what is “right” as whatever gets results. Success is right, failure is wrong. (The only “right” words to him are the ones that get people off his back, so of course he complained on Twitter when he didn’t get enough pats on the head from the press for Monday’s comments.)
His belief is that might makes right. He has told us many times that he actually admires those who inflict violence to get their way. He encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies. When confronted with Putin’s reported responsibility for murders of his political opponents, he said “you think we’re so innocent?” I know too much of our history to think that. But I also know that for a nation to give in to his nihilistic cynicism—the kind willing to brush away political murder with a blithe “everybody does it”—is a recipe for national spiritual death.
In the end, that’s why I have found these past few days to be so awful. I know there are awful people in this country who believe awful things, who will emulate Nazis and spew hate. I’ve known that for a long time. To know that we have a leader so spiritually bankrupt that he sees those people as indistinguishable from people who denounce hatred is something else altogether. Every day he remains in that office, he debases this country, he drags it further and further down to his base and vulgar level. That is truly awful. It will only end when he leaves the White House for good.
Mark S. Byrnes is Chair and Professor of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
This article was originally published at History News Network