Recent polling shows the American people approve of the way President Biden is doing his job. It may be boring compared to the previous four years, but Biden’s approach is closer to what most adult citizens consider normal behavior for a president of the United States.
Polls show the number of people who still support Donald Trump, or believe his lie that the election was stolen from him, is slowly shrinking. At the same time, despite the evidence, there are millions of Americans who are still under his spell. That is really the only way to see it, because his behavior out of office is as erratic and irresponsible as it was when he was in office. And before he was in the office, for that matter.
A few weeks ago, the Army released a report on one of the ugliest nights of the Trump presidency. It was the night of June 1, 2020, just a few hours after President Trump had ordered Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, cleared of protestors so that he could pose for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Trump and his handlers thought the move would make him look like a strong leader. It did not compute for any of them — the president or his enablers — that the protestors were ordinary Americans demanding that their government do something to end police violence.
It is reliably reported that after the president and his party returned to the White House they congratulated themselves for using the power of the state against American citizens exercising their right to protest. It is just another example of Trump’s us versus them view of the world. A world with no sense of irony, shame, or basic understanding of what makes America, America.
Later that night, feeling he had been given the green light by the president to use every means necessary to clear the streets of Washington, D.C. of peaceful protesters, a brigadier general with the D.C. National Guard, ordered four helicopters into the sky to help coordinate crowd control with D.C. police. But the mission quickly went bad.
The crews of at least two of the helicopters began using their machines to fly low over the streets as a means of dispersing the crowds. An Army investigation into the incident says that at one point one of the helicopters was hovering just fifty-five feet off the ground, kicking dust and debris into the air and causing a panic below. The use of helicopters, in this way, for crowd control, is dangerous, especially in an urban area.
Some of the helicopters flying that night were marked with red crosses, meaning they were only supposed to be used for medical missions. According to the Washington Post, the next day, the general who authorized the helicopter missions, said his plans had been “fully vetted” by the president. The Army report into the issue found no evidence of any direct orders from the president or senior leadership in the military. But let’s be honest about the environment that had been created by senior leadership. A direct order was not necessary. Anyone watching events unfold earlier that day would know the president wanted the streets cleared as a signal to mayors across the country that this is how you deal with protestors. He had been advocating for an overwhelming show of force.
During the Trump administration, week after week, the president bent or ignored the rules. He refused to cooperate with Congress, he fired inspectors put in place to keep a watch on how our federal government is or is not working for us, he pushed the limits of his power, he enabled those who work for him to use the power of the White House to humiliate his perceived enemies by labeling them as “bad actors.” Anyone who did not accept the president’s complete power was a bad actor, in the words of some of the worst government actors in presidential history. Malpractice at the top tends to run down and corrode everything underneath.
We learned during the Trump period just how fragile our system of government is. As much as we hold the U.S. Constitution in high regard, the men who wrote it were working from the basic premise that the men (and at that point they imagined only men) who would hold office in the future would be of high character. That was a given. There were very few tools, other than impeachment, included in the Constitution to counteract those who abuse their power. The biggest tools in that regard were an assumption of high character, decency, competition between branches of the government (checks and balances), and fear of being shamed.
Shame, as a regulator on bad behavior seems to be losing its power in modern America and perhaps in the world. If you have no shame, if you are willing to weather a few days of negative news coverage, President Trump proved you can do it and survive politically. And in some circles, maybe circles big enough to get you re-elected, you may even see an increase in your popularity.
Whether it is the president, a local commander of the National Guard, or a police officer; we give people in elected and appointed positions in government, at all levels, tremendous responsibility and in some cases tools and hardware that can be mis-used against us. Guns, helicopters, the power to indict. Like the Founding Fathers, we give people in leadership positions these powers with the expectation that they will be used in good faith and only when absolutely necessary. It is a huge leap of faith on our part and perhaps it is unwise.
If there is any over-riding lesson of the last four years it is how easy it is for people in power to break the contract. When they do, the slide toward abuse of power is swift and in some cases it cannot be stopped. In some cases it can’t be brought back to center.
It is still too early to tell whether four years of the Biden administration can remind us what is important about proper temperament in government. I fear that some in the Republican Party, have taken the wrong message from four years of Donald Trump. They have not concluded that his approach was wrong. They have only concluded that he was on the right track, but needed a more subtle approach.
The next time we elect someone with no respect for our history or institutions, it might be harder to detect how that leader is manipulating the rules to amass power and strip ordinary Americans of the protections of the law. Trump, in his messy way, broke through the wall of common decency, societal, and governmental norms. The next potential tyrant will find it easier. Congress needs to take steps to write into law the protections previous generations were afforded by the presumption that our leaders would always be decent people of high character.
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