Opinion

Trump is not America's moral steward. He's simply its reflection: Robyn Urback

In a perverse way, Donald Trump actually embodies what he champions. Previous presidents have preached morality while their administrations tortured prisoners; Trump preaches hate while mocking a disabled reporter and sexual assault survivor. It's ugly, sure, but it's consistent.

The U.S. president appeared to blame the media for the pipe bombs landing in Democrats' mailboxes this week

U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to blame the mainstream media for the series of pipe bombs landing in prominent mailboxes throughout America this week. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

It's a fallacy that the office holder of the president of the United States serves as a credible moral steward for the American people. The Oval Office has, after all, hosted slave owners and adulterers, accused sexual predators and liars, thugs and warmongers — men who would preach goodness and morality, yet live (and often govern) by a separate code.

Many were the types of men who would never use the Lord's name in vain during intercourse with their mistresses.

Most of these men, however, maintained an outward air of humility. Abraham Lincoln, shortly before he was nominated as the Republican candidate for president, wrote in a letter to a newspaper editor: "I do not think myself fit for the presidency."

Ronald Reagan famously held such esteem for the post that he wouldn't enter the Oval Office without wearing a jacket and tie. And even Richard Nixon, in a 1964 television campaign ad in support of Barry Goldwater, said: "With all the power that a president has, the most important thing to bear in mind is this: You must not give power to a man unless, above everything else, he has character."

Hypocrisy aside, throughout all the years of the U.S. presidency, there was generally a recognition that the office and its message was more important than the individual. Until now.

There's no humility — contrived or otherwise — with U.S. President Donald Trump. No deference to the esteem of the office or wider appeal for charity or goodness. In a perverse way, Trump actually embodies what he champions.

Previous presidents preached morality while their administrations tortured prisoners; Trump preaches hate while mocking a disabled reporter and a sexual assault survivor. It's ugly, sure, but it's consistent.

That's why Trump's latest ignominy, in which he appeared to blame the mainstream media for the series of pipe bombs landing in prominent mailboxes throughout the U.S., is perfectly in line with his version of the presidency.

If anything, it's likely a galvanizing gesture for those who have grown to appreciate his authenticity.

Trump's response to the spate of mail-bomb packages was to suggest on Twitter Thursday that the media had provoked the madman who sent explosives to the Clintons, the Obamas, the CNN newsroom and others. There was certainly no culpability, as far as Trump was concerned, on the part of the person who has explicitly and repeatedly made them targets by using the most powerful pulpit in America.

Trump had made a call for unity in a prepared address the evening prior — but he retreated to his favourite grievances online just a few hours later, which he is known to do.

Police stand guard outside of the Time Warner Center in New York after an explosive device was found there on Wednesday morning. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Indeed, to have expected any other response from Trump would have been to confuse today's presidency with an incarnation that no longer exists: One in which the president would set a moral standard, even if it wasn't actually reached.

But morality appears to factor little into Trump's positions on fraught issues. He struggled to condemn neo-Nazis following a deadly rally in Charlottesville last year. He defended the horrific practice of separating and caging migrant children away from their families. He has saluted — literally, in one case — ruthless regimes run by vile dictators.

The off-the-cuff statements Trump made in each of the above cases — that there are "good people" on both sides, that migrant parents are to blame, that Kim Jong-Un knows how to make his people sit up and pay attention — reflected a fundamental lack of compassion, which is something that even the most hardline presidents maintained (or at least feigned to maintain), even while defending controversial policy.

In the past we'd get political spin, of course. But it was typically coupled with an authentic acknowledgement of pain or hardship — a reminder that we are talking about people, not just issues.

We're not used to a president who practically comes right out and says: "I don't care."

Former CIA director John Brennan took to Twitter to implore Trump to 'act presidential.' (Pablo Martinez Monsivai/Associated Press)

Former CIA director John Brennan, who was one of the targets of this week's mail bombs, slammed Trump for his callous response to the incident on Twitter, calling his response un-American and imploring him to "act presidential." It's the same sort of plea Trump has heard since before he became president, and it remains as inconsequential now as it was then.

This is a president who is unconcerned with acting presidential, who is apparently unburdened by the enormous moral authority conferred by his title. This is less a criticism than an observation: Trump doesn't appear to want to steer the ethical course of the nation. Indeed, he's less a moral steward of the American conscience than an uncritical reflection.

Trump's supporters might argue that it's preferable to have an authentically depraved president than who preaches compassion and decency, then fails his own standard.

But to completely abandon the notion — OK, the ideal — of the president as the nation's moral custodian is to suggest that words alone can't have influence. (They can.) And it's to suggest that appealing to a higher standard is futile unless it is going to be met. (It's not.)

Many Americans still take their cues from the edicts of the person occupying the Oval Office. Ideally, he'd strive for better, not simply reflect the worst.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: