George Washington, Trump, and the End of Humility

February 22, 2018

George Washington,  Donald Trump, and the End of Humility

In seemingly every possible way—with his tweets, with style and substance based more on reality TV than reality, with a dismissal not just of facts but of fact itself, with outright rejection of the concept of ethics—Donald Trump has brought that long tradition of humility to a thudding end even before entering office. In doing so, he gives the finger to George Washington and those who followed him. His behavior tells us that he thinks of them as fools for acting as though ideals and the meanings of words mattered.–Russell Shorto


Image result for george washington

On April 16, 1789, George Washington stepped into a carriage at Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate, and rumbled off toward New York and the Presidency. Far from feeling flush with imminent power, he told his diary that he contemplated the task ahead “with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.”

Washington had not wanted the job but had bowed to the common wisdom that he was the only person with the respect and regard to be generally accepted as the nation’s first chief executive. Yet the mere thought of assuming the Presidency, he told Alexander Hamilton, cast “a gloom upon my mind.” One reason was surely exhaustion. After years of punishing military service, his body was giving out. He had become hard of hearing; he had exactly one of his own teeth in his mouth. He was fifty-seven but felt much older.

There were other reasons for the gloom, too. In presiding over the Constitutional Convention, two years earlier, he had lent his weight to the Federalists, who argued that the nation would collapse without a strong central government. At the same time, he had supported the Bill of Rights, and with it the idea that the new nation must commit itself to safeguarding its citizens’ basic rights and freedoms.

These were unprecedented notions on which to build a political system, and seemingly contradictory ones at that, so Washington knew that living up to them would be onerous. How to balance the power of the federal government against the primacy of individual rights? The Anti-Federalists, who believed that the Constitution came dangerously close to granting the President autocratic powers, had, he knew, valid concerns. And he feared that the very factionalism that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists personified was liable to cripple the whole project.

Washington was not the deep and imaginative thinker that Hamilton was, or that Thomas Jefferson or James Madison were. And he was morally compromised by the issue of slavery: he owned slaves, and while he privately denounced the institution he did nothing to stop it from spreading and infecting the new nation. But, if he was a product of his time and privileged circumstances, he was also a man of basic morality: he fretted, fumed, and agonized over doing the right thing, in instances large and small.

Image result for His new book, “Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom,

This combination of forces weighed him down. The Presidency was, and has been ever since, an impossibly large task, and anyone who has approached the office with even a modicum of humility—that is to say, most every President up to now—has done so in emulation of Washington.

In seemingly every possible way—with his tweets, with style and substance based more on reality TV than reality, with a dismissal not just of facts but of fact itself, with outright rejection of the concept of ethics—Donald Trump has brought that long tradition of humility to a thudding end even before entering office. In doing so, he gives the finger to George Washington and those who followed him. His behavior tells us that he thinks of them as fools for acting as though ideals and the meanings of words mattered.

Washington took words seriously. He ardently believed in what he called “natural justice,” and understood that those who took positions of power in government were to be its custodians. He knew that the job of President must support what he referred to as the “innate spirit of freedom.” These were not mere phrases. He had fought through mud and bullets for eight long years out of a commitment to what they represented; in watching ordinary farmer-soldiers do likewise, he had seen how such airy notions took corporeal substance.

Washington was keenly aware that he was walking, as he said, “on untrodden ground.” He established rituals not for decorum’s sake but to root the Presidency in the deep meaning of those ideas: “it is devoutly wished on my part,” he told James Madison, “that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” He very deliberately chose not to be called His Excellency but, rather, Mr. President. A less noticeable precedent that Washington set, which has remained to this day part of our idea of the Presidency, comes from his background. He was a product of Virginia’s tobacco-planter culture, in which a leader was someone who sat literally high on his horse, reserved, level-headed, above the fray. His generation adopted an idealized model of public service derived from ancient Rome, in particular from the statesman Cato as he appeared in Joseph Addison’s play “The Tragedy of Cato.” “Thy life is not thy own when Rome demands it,” the great man intones. More than any of his contemporaries, Washington held to this as a personal ideal. In 1776, he talked about the conflict with England not in terms of America or justice but “the cause of virtue.” As far as Washington was concerned, he was fighting in the name of goodness, honesty, rectitude, decency.

Models are models: no one lives up to them. But Washington brought with him from Mount Vernon as part of his baggage his generation’s reverence for public service, which Paul K. Longmore, the Washington biographer, summarized as “their ideals of patriotism, selflessness and emotional self-mastery.” Those elements have remained attached to our own model of the Presidency.

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George Washington was incapable of lying whereas Trump has difficulty in speaking the truth. That is why he will never be George POTUS 1

If those who feel dread at the coming Administration want to express the source of their anxiety to others who do not comprehend their feelings, they might point to this discrepancy between the first President and the forty-fifth as each man stood on the brink of the office. As his carriage reached the shores of the Hudson River, Washington noted the cheering throngs; their cries, he said, “filled my mind with sensations as painful . . . as they are pleasing.” Painful because he knew what people expected of him, and he very reasonably questioned his ability to live up to it. It is human to feel the weight of such a burden. Knowing that the man about to assume power feels that moral burden is vital to us, for it suggests that he will govern with compassion, in “the cause of virtue.” That is what we have come to expect. More than that, it’s what we demand.

4 thoughts on “George Washington, Trump, and the End of Humility

  1. I still browse your blog, Din, and I’ve heard you calling my name twice. I’ve been too busy to write, for writing doesn’t come easy for me; it takes time for me to organize my thoughts.

    When George Washington delivered his first inaugural address, his trademark humility on display as he accepted the call to lead our nation: “The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”

    Washington recognized the enormous undertaking before him and the trust that had been placed in him by his fellow citizens. It’s a stark contrast to Donald Trump.

    Even before he became a presidential candidate, Trump told a crowd in March 2011: “If I decide to run, you’ll have the great pleasure of voting for the man that will easily go down as the greatest president in the history of the United States: Me, Donald John Trump.” He certainly didn’t share Washington’s concerns about the task that lays ahead of him — indeed, he thought he’d “easily” outstrip not just Washington, but Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and the 40 other presidents that have served this nation. Humility never was a part of the Trump lexicon; an inflated sense of self is.

    During his presidential candidacy, Trump never mentioned anything of policy issues but praised everything from his own fingers to his “all-time great” memory to his IQ (it’s “one of the highest – and you all know it!”) to his superior genes. And he was quick to tell you just how much other people — whether that’s “people from China” or evangelicals or Latinos or just people in general — love him. He told Anderson Cooper: “People love me. And you know what? I’ve been very successful. Everybody loves me.”

    He stubbornly expected that he’d be able to get things done merely through the strength of his own, much-loved persona. Mexico would suddenly bend to his will and pay for his wall. Vladimir Putin would magically melt under his spell — “I will get along, I think, with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable, stable world,” he said in a September debate. When Jake Tapper asked him for clarification, he merely reiterated that he would get along. By the sheer power of The Donald, I guess. He once told a room: “What a great honor it must be for you to honor me tonight.” Trump demonstrated little sense of the sanctity of the office he was seeking to fill or the honor of serving and leading the nation.

    Trump got elected. His records for the past one year speak aplenty. I need not spend time to elaborate them. Donald John Trump is the most despicable man ever got elected for any public office.

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