As head of government, the chief executive leads his party and fights his political battles. Head of state is a very different position. In that role, the president must unify, not divide. He must represent the whole country, not just the people who voted for him. A head of state is a moral leader, not a political one; a national chaplain, not a party chieftain.
We celebrate presidents who grasp the importance of that spiritual mission. Think of Ronald Reagan consoling the country after the Challenger disaster; George W. Bush mounting a ruined fire engine at Ground Zero and vowing revenge for 9/11; Barack Obama hugging the families of 26 teachers and school children killed in Newtown, Connecticut.
Presidencies are marked by those moments. And when President Trump was tested by the mayhem in Charlottesville that cost three lives, he failed badly.
Trump’s first response, condemning violence “on many sides” – a phrase he used twice for emphasis – was a transparent effort to avoid condemning the ultra-nationalist movements that have strongly backed his presidency. Even his own daughter found his statement so deeply deficient that he was finally pressured to concede that “racism is evil.”
It was a clarion confession of how seriously he’d stumbled, and yet even then, the president’s grim and grudging manner – repeating words written for him by anxious aides – bristled with insincerity. Days later, finally unscripted and unleashed, he doubled down on his original view, accusing left-wing protestors of being “very, very violent” and heaping “blame on both sides” for the Charlottesville tragedy.
That was the True Trump revealed, sending insidious signals of intolerance that his more nativist supporters have always understood. As David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, told the Indianapolis Star: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. ... That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he’s going to take our country back.”
It would be unfair to describe all Trumpists as racists. It would be equally unfair to ignore the fact that this president has always exploited a dark dimension of the American character and appealed to racist instincts as a tool of political advancement.
Trump first came to political prominence by espousing the birther movement, a truly despicable idea that tried to disqualify Barack Obama as an African, a Muslim, an alien “other” – anything but a white Christian American.
As a candidate, Trump denounced Hispanic immigrants as “rapists” and questioned the integrity of a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage. Just recently, he’s been “seriously considering” a pardon for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a national symbol of biased policing against Latinos.
The president called for a total ban on Muslims entering the country and attacked “so-called” federal judges who ruled that his policies violated the Constitution. He’s frequently denounced “radical Islamic terrorism,” but declined to brand as a terrorist the white nationalist who killed a protestor in Charlottesville. He’s called the Black Lives Matter movement a “threat” and accused them of encouraging the assassination of police officers.
Trump’s political calculation is obvious. He desperately feels the need to solidify his core constituency in the face of shrinking poll numbers. In the latest Gallup survey, only 34 percent of Americans viewed him favorably, and that rating sank to 29 percent among independents. In a CNN poll, only 17 percent said he’s raised the stature of the presidency while 55 percent said he’s diminished the office.
The president’s dismal performance after Charlottesville can only besmirch his reputation further. But if he wants to learn how to be a pastor, not just a politician, he can follow the model of his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, who was governor of South Carolina two years ago when a white nationalist killed nine worshippers in a black Charleston church.
Identifying strongly as “a minority female governor” who has encountered discrimination, she brought her two young children to attend the church after the shooting and said, “My children saw that true hate can never triumph over true love.”
Within weeks, Haley had called the state legislature into session and pushed through a bipartisan bill that removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. “No one should drive by the statehouse and feel like they don’t belong,” she told NBC.
The governor signed the measure with nine pens, one for each of the families who lost a relative in the church shooting. That’s real moral leadership. That’s what President Trump has utterly failed to provide this nation.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at [email protected]