Many of Donald Trump’s critics complain that his rhetoric is often beneath the dignity of the presidency. They certainly have a point. Trump frequently blasts his political enemies with a vehemence far removed from the restraint and decorum observed by most past presidents.
This complaint implies an obvious solution to the problem: President Trump should behave with more dignity. If only it were that simple.
Yes, the way Trump talks—and tweets—is often at odds with the dignity we should expect in the highest elected official of our republic. Nevertheless, if we pause to reflect on this complaint, we find that it requires us to think more carefully about, and perhaps to rethink, the kind of politics and culture that we should want to have.
In the first place, we should recognize that a dignified presidency requires a dignified politics. Ordinarily, a man’s personal dignity depends on his own conduct alone. Thus it is possible for a person to maintain a kind of dignity—an internal dignity of soul and an outward dignity of virtuous conduct—even when suffering outrageous injustice.
The dignity of an institution such as the presidency, however, depends both on the conduct of its occupant and on the conduct of others. The dignity of a public office has to do with the esteem in which it is held by the people. This esteem can be eroded not only by the undignified behavior of its occupant, but also by the refusal of others to treat the occupant with the proper dignity.
To be perfectly evenhanded, then, we would have to admit that many of Trump’s enemies also undermine the dignity of the presidency through their extreme rhetorical attacks on him. Thus, we find some of them—even elected officials who themselves should know the value of the dignity of public office—musing recklessly that the president might be guilty of “treason.”
This phenomenon is not unique to the Trump presidency. Presidents Obama and Bush were subjected to much reasonable and tough criticism, but also to a good deal of hatred and vitriol. The dignity of the presidency, then, requires not just a more dignified president, but also a more dignified politics. Such a politics would require all of us—citizens, commentators and statesmen—to cultivate the dignified virtues of moderation and respect in arguing with each other.
Such a change, however, could not take place apart from a reformation of the culture itself. It is unrealistic, after all, for us to expect our politics to be more dignified than the culture at large—or at least much more dignified. Not that it is wrong to try to elevate politics, and especially the presidency, above the norms of daily life. George Washington tried to do so, and he had good reasons: to build and sustain the respect for government that a nation—especially a new nation—needs.
Nevertheless, there must be a limit to how far the decorum of politics can excel that of ordinary life. Human nature itself sets the limit. We are by nature sociable beings and therefore imitative beings. We tend to accommodate ourselves to whatever is going on most prevalently around us. Accordingly, culture is contagious. No doubt a king will always be more dignified than his subjects. At the same time, it is reasonable to expect that a king who reigns over a nation of louts will himself be less dignified than a king who rules over a nation of sober, serious, noble subjects.
If we really want a dignified presidency, then, we need a dignified culture. The trend for the last couple of generations, however, has been to drive dignity out of our culture. Dignity has been downplayed as unnecessary and even derided as oppressive. The proponents of the 1960s counterculture—inspired by Rousseau, or by vulgar popularizers of Rousseau—rejected civility as phoniness and norms of restraint in public as a kind of tyranny over the soul.
For more than fifty years, many individuals and institutions of considerable social influence have made it a point to ridicule the norms of civility associated with “bourgeois morality,” to say nothing of the more refined manners of old-fashioned elites. And they have equally made it a point praise whatever is “authentic” and even what is “transgressive.” Such language teaches that the soul’s raw impulses are better than the rules that seek to restrain those impulses, and therefore that it is good to “transgress” the rules in order to liberate the impulses.
Many of those who have done the most to teach such a view of human life are now appalled at Donald Trump. Why should they be? After all, Trump’s attacks on his opponents are nothing if not an “authentic” expression of his combative spirit, “transgressing” the phony rules of civility observed by tame and cowardly politicians who treat each other with exquisite delicacy even though they really hate each other.
To borrow an expression from Abraham Lincoln, if we want a dignified presidency “we must think anew and act anew.” In thought, we have to reject the idea that civilized rules of dignity oppress the soul instead of elevating it. In action, we have to restore the role of dignity to our culture at large—insisting on and striving to achieve the dignity that is appropriate to the civilized citizens of a great republic.
If we will not strive for such dignity, there is no reason in the long run to expect that presidents will do so.
Carson Holloway is a Visiting Scholar in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.