Trump’s failure to accomplish little or any of his agenda during his first 100 days is striking. But we should not forget the vast harm he has done in this comparatively short time – especially his degradation of the presidency.
From early in the Republic, we have looked at the office of the presidency as a focal point for the nation’s values. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and his Teddy’s fifth cousin, Franklin, are studied by school children as both exemplars of what it means to be president and of the moral authority of the office of the presidency. It is not merely what these men accomplished, but how they did it; not just their policies but their principled ways of pulling them off.
True, many of our presidents have fallen short of those ideals. But the sadness or rebuke engendered by these failures reveals the high standard we have come to expect from our presidents, and the value we place on the office of they held.
But not until Trump has the moral authority of the office disappeared.
I’m old enough to recall when John F. Kennedy invited the world’s great artists, writers, and philosophers to dine at the White House. The nation felt ennobled. Donald Trump invites Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent, who once called President Obama a “mongrel,” and we feel sullied.
But it has not been just Trump’s vulgarity.
There have also been Trump’s lies – blatant, continuous, and unsubstantiated, even after the lack of evidence has been pointed out repeatedly. They are not just any lies, but lies that deepen Americans’ suspicion of one another and undermine our confidence in our system of government – such as his repeated contention that “three to five million” people voted illegally in the last election, or that Obama spied on him during the campaign.
Prior presidents have embellished the truth or, occasionally, lied about a particular important thing, such as the existence of weapons of mass destruction. But before Trump we have never had a president who chronically lies, whose lies have become an integral part of his presidency even in the first 100 days.
There has also been Trump’s vast family business – from which he continues to benefit, even though the decisions he makes in office affect the money he makes off of them, and foreign governments cater to them in order to curry favor. He shrugs off such conflicts, even refusing to release his tax returns, even inviting his daughter and son-in-law, each with their own businesses and conflicts of interest, to join him at the highest reaches of the White House.
Some presidents have profited from their presidencies after they leave office, through large speaking fees. But never before Trump have we had a president for whom conflicts of financial interest during his presidency are flagrant yet ignored.
The first 100 days has also been marked by Trump’s divisiveness – turning Americans against each other, legitimizing hatefulness toward Mexican-Americans and Muslim-Americans and African-Americans, fueling violence between his supporters and his opponents.
We have had divisive elections before in America. But after them, other presidents have sought to bring us together, heal the wounds. Even after the horrors of the Civil War, Lincoln famously asked us to rejoin without malice. Trump, by contrast, seems to delight in creating and and encouraging warring camps – calling his opponents “enemies,” and staging rallies to encourage and fuel his bedrock supporters.
There has also been Trump’s necessary cruelty – toward refugees, undocumented immigrants, and the poor among us. He has issued a budget that would deeply harm the least advantaged Americans, and supported a repeal of the Affordable Care Act that would also hurt those most in need.
He has refused asylum to refugees at a time when the world faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and unleashed immigration enforcers on 11 million people who are not authorized to be in America but of whom many have been productive members of their communities for years. He has even deported people who have been here since childhood and know know no other nation.
Other presidents have on occasion been hard and cruel. But Trump has evinced a cruelty that defies reason, a cruelty that has no basis in fact and is utterly unnecessary.
There has been Trump’s affect on the rest of the world – legitimizing crude nationalism and hateful xenophobia, as evinced by France’s Marine Le Pen, encouraging dictators and authoritarians, such as Turkey’s Erdogan, while at the same time confusing our allies and friends.
Finally, there is Donald Trump himself – who in the first 100 days as president has shown himself to be narcissistic, xenophobic, paranoid, vindictive, and thin-skinned; who takes credit for the work of others and blames others for his own failings; who lashes out at the press and journalists when they criticize him, and who demonizes judges who disagree with him.
We have before had presidents such as Richard Nixon and Warren G. Harding, whose personality defects harmed their presidencies and tainted the office of the president. But Donald Trump is in a different league altogether. He exhibits the opposite of every civic virtue ever encouraged in our school rooms, town halls, and churches.
The first 100 days is an artificial landmark for presidents. But it does offer an opportunity to pause and assess their accomplishments. Too often, though, we think in the narrow gauge of policies and legislation.
With Trump, it’s important to think more broadly. Among the most significant legacies of his first 100 days is his degrading of the moral authority of the office of the president, and, thereby, of America.
This article was originally published on Robert Reich’s blog.