The United States is the government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and therefore the President of the United States is obligated to be president to all the people.
All presidents have been members of political parties: Democrats and Republicans form our modern two-party system. When presidential candidates are on the campaign trail, they will often go on the offensive against their opponent and their opponent’s political views. There’s nothing nefarious about this; they’re rallying their base to their cause and trying to gain the support of those still undecided.
However, once Election Day ends and a new president is chosen, it’s been a long-standing American tradition for the president-elect to tone down the partisan rhetoric and rise to their position not as president of their political party –but to cast aside the polarization of political parties– and ascend as the President of the United States, representing the welfare and interests of all the people.
THE RISE OF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP
With the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the president-to-all tradition has become a thing of the past. When his opponent for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, conceded in the early morning hours of November 9th, 2016, President-elect Trump gave his victory speech.
Despite waging one of the most callous presidential campaigns in American history, his victory speech indicated he would rise above the callousness and carry on the president-for-all tradition:
“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.”
BREAKING THE PLEDGE
It didn’t take very long for President Trump to break his pledge. In fact, the pledge was broken before he was even inaugurated. In the month after the election, President-elect Trump gave nearly a dozen post-election victory rallies. All of these victory rallies were held in states that casted their electoral votes to Trump.
On January 20, 2017, the day of Trump’s inauguration, he already filed the paperwork for his 2020 reelection, earlier than any president in American history. And, as we have learned, this isn’t a matter of Trump being clerically expeditious. Instead, he was paving the way to perpetually conduct political rallies for his supporters.
His first post-election campaign rally was held on February 18, 2017 in Melbourne, FL –a re-election rally being held less than a month after being sworn into office. Trump held rallies at least once a month for the remainder of 2017, and with increasing frequency, continues to hold them.
A PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED BASE OF AMERICA
President Trump’s post-election rallies were no different than his pre-election rallies. The rallies were used, at least in part, to water the seeds of discord that he had planted in his pre-election rallies. They were used as a vehicle to keep his base engaged and enraged, using polarizing rhetoric against his perceived enemies. He used the platform to both mock and discredit his perceived enemies. This, by design, made Trump’s enemies his supporters’ enemies, which only served to make his supporters more fervent. He is their dark shepherd and they are his flock.
In a recent news analysis, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, wrote an article asserting President Trump has done away with the president-for-all tradition, “Mr. Trump does not bother with the pretense. He is speaking to his people, not the people. He has become, or so it often seems, the president of the United Base of America.”
As a result of unfavorable reporting, one of the first American institutions attacked by Trump was the free press. The press hasn’t often been viewed favorably by former presidents, but their frustrations were usually controlled and relatively based on reason (e.g. in times of war, a president wouldn’t want the press hurting the war effort with unfavorable reports).
With Trump, he openly expresses his disdain toward the press, going so far as to call them “the enemy of the people,” which is incredibly dangerous rhetoric for a president to be using. The free press is protected by the First Amendment. Their purpose is to inform the public, so the public is capable of making informed decisions. Therefore, Trump’s rhetoric undermines the lifeblood of democracy: reliable information.
Unfortunately, “the enemy of the people” language wasn’t a one-time occurrence. He’s made the accusation dozens of times: at rallies, in interviews, on Twitter, etc. As recently as February 20, 2019, Trump tweeted, “The New York Times reporting is false. They are a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
Trump has also used inflammatory rhetoric against Democrats. He’s mocked Democratic members of congress, making up nicknames for Democrats he’s targeting at the moment. The nicknames aren’t new for Trump. He’s been doing it since he started his 2016 presidential bid. He’s had nicknames for his GOP primary opponents, and he’s even referred to members of his own administration with these juvenile nicknames.
The extent of the president’s common decency is virtually non-existent. Having poor decency is one thing, but making serious accusations against Democrats is something else entirely. When he felt Democrats weren’t clapping enough during his 2018 State of the Union address, some days later he told his supporters at a rally:
“They were like death. And un-American. Somebody said ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not?”
For a president to use the word “treason” in reference to Democrats not applauding him is deeply troubling for a democratic society. These are senators and representatives who were put into power by the citizens of their respective states and districts in the United States –the country Trump was elected to lead. So it’s not only an attack on the Democratic members of congress themselves, it’s also, in effect, an attack on the citizens who elected them.
As Peter Baker wrote in his recent analysis on Trump, “He is speaking to his people, not the people.” How should the 71,791,044 Americans –53.3% of those who casted a presidential ballot in 2016– feel about the fact we have a president who is openly partial to a portion of Americans and not all Americans? We should be justifiably concerned.
It’s not as if his supporters make up a majority of the country. He received 46.7% of the popular vote, which means most Americans did not vote for him. Since becoming president, polling data has been even more unfavorable. Based on Gallup polling, the average job approval rating for Trump is 40% (based on his 820 days in office).
Trump and his followers have a symbiotic relationship: Trump receives power and adulation; his followers receive their political showman at rallies and on Twitter, and a perceived ally in the White House. The problem is the rest of the country –the majority of the country– has no ally in the White House. You only need to look as far as Trump’s Twitter account to understand that if you’re not siding with him or praising him, you’re against him.
America’s always had to deal with the consequences of elections, but these consequences have virtually always been focused on policy positions. With the rise of Trump, we’ve had to deal with a set of much different and darker consequences: a threat to our democratic institutions and the normalization of rhetoric and behavior that was once unbecoming of a president.
The president’s inflammatory rhetoric is used to create division within our country. He doesn’t aim to mend the discord; he aims to sow more seeds of it amongst his supporters to reap the political benefits gained from a group of people who’ve been misled and disinformed.
Our country has experienced times of national crisis before. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, southern states began seceding from the Union, which inevitably led to the Civil War. Lincoln’s fight was founded on domestic policy and morality. While it’s unlikely we’re facing an impending civil war, we can still learn from what leadership looks like from a man who was president to all in a time of great civil strife–even reaching out to the very people who pledged their allegiance to a rebel force.
And so, it’s fitting to close on the words of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Update: After writing this article, Donald Trump made another “enemy of the people” statement against the free press: “The Washington Post and New York Times are, in my opinion, two of the most dishonest media outlets around. Truly, the Enemy of the People!”