Everything about and around Trump is just that, gaudy. Though born to money, he comes across as a truck driver who has just won the lottery.
His language, dress, mannerisms, reliance on rabble rousing, tastes in everything including women suggest an ideological commitment to tawdry vulgarity. Now, and I hope Shakespeare won’t mind, some people are born vulgar, some achieve vulgarity, and some have vulgarity thrust upon them.
For all I know, Trump might have manufactured his personality to fit his assessment of his audience, the American people. If that was his ploy, it has worked, after a fashion. But it may also backfire.
Every dramatic event of Trump’s life, certainly his political life, brings out into the streets two mobs, those who either love him or hate him with equally hysterical passion. The mobs clash, scream, swear or even, in extremis, try to storm government buildings. It’s all passionate, loud – and vulgar.
Moving from the sublime to the, well, less sublime, that is from Shakespeare to Wilde, all vulgarity is a crime. Trump has done his level best to drag American politics into the gutter of mob tastes, and that’s infinitely worse than his alleged mishandling of hush payments to assorted women of easy virtue.
In modern democracies, politics takes on an inordinate importance. It becomes not only the face of a nation, but also its essence. When the masses become subjects, rather than objects, of governance, they shape politics and politicians – and hence their country – in their own image. But the reverse is also true: politicians retaliate by doing the same thing to the masses.
Thus politicians can have a powerful, sometimes formative, effect on the style and tone of a nation. And the brasher the politician, the greater and more enduring the effect. Style perseveres long after substance evaporates.
Each president as a person affects the presidency as an institution. What Trump fails to grasp is that the latter is much more significant than the former. Presidents come and go, as do their policies, good or bad. Subsequent presidents usually undo the good ones and exacerbate the bad ones, but the permanent institution lives on after the transient individuals withdraw into history books.
If that institution loses honour and dignity, the loss may well prove irreversible. And President Trump damages the presidency both in and out of office.
For example, he and his fans scream themselves hoarse that the Democrats stole the latest election. That may or may not be true, but those tasteless shrieks undermine the dignity of the institution one way or the other.
Compare Trump’s behaviour with Nixon’s, who can hardly be held up as an exemplar of presidential probity. However, when in 1960 his advisers showed him the data proving that the Democrats had stolen the election in the swing state of Illinois, Nixon refused to demand a recount. Doing so, he said, would diminish the presidency – and he was right. No such compunctions for Trump.
As to the face value of his indictment, let the lawyers figure it out. Trump’s acolytes claim the case against him is politically motivated, and no doubt they are right. But, however reprehensible such a motivation may be, it doesn’t in itself mean the case is groundless.
Personally, I can’t believe that Trump, a clever operator who had been around the block or two, made the amateurish mistake of passing hush money as legal fees. Surely, he could have found a fool-proof way to compensate his lawyer for the payment the latter had made to that porn star.
Most commentators say that the resulting brouhaha will boost Trump’s chances of securing the Republican nomination, if not presidency. Again, I’m not an expert. Maybe it will or maybe it won’t.
But I do detect an opening for Biden to scupper Trump’s campaign once and for all. All he has to do is issue a presidential pardon for Trump, what Ford did for Nixon in 1974, and Nixon’s crime was infinitely worse than Trump’s.
That would be a noble, magnanimous gesture that could be sold to the public as upholding the dignity of the institution. Trump’s constant whining about his stolen presidency would then look petty and, by comparison, unpresidential.
However, he is doing a creditable job of that all on his own. I mentioned his taste in women earlier, and it’s identical to that of my hypothetical truck driver who has won the lottery. Basking in the glow of his unexpected millions, that chap would instantly use some of his new fortune to reel in models, Playboy bunnies, porn stars and hookers – the same demographic pasture in which Trump grazes.
One can say in Trump’s defence that he isn’t the first president whose sexual shenanigans have ever brought the presidency into disrepute. At least, according to the indictment, Trump misbehaved before, rather than during, his tenure.
JFK indulged his priapism while in the White House, with Secret Service agents running hookers and trashy actresses through his bedroom. Their colleagues in the next generation provided a similar service for Clinton. Bill also had a sleazy affair with a young intern, proving in the process that sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar.
Speaking of the dignity of the institution, I cringed when reading Monica Lewinsky’s recollections of having “phone sex” with the president. At least, by all accounts Trump eschews the mediation of electronic appliances, although I wouldn’t put anything past him.
To be fair, the media can either boost or soft-pedal whatever damage presidents do to the presidency. In the case of Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, Clinton, they downplayed it, while for Trump they are turning their amplifiers on full blast.
That’s where politics barges in. The major TV networks and mainstream papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post tend to reflect the views of the Democratic Party, and not necessarily its right end. Hence, they either ignored Kennedy’s and Clinton’s misbehaviour or treated them as friends who had done something naughty.
By contrast, they treat Nixon and Trump as mortal enemies, not friends gone slightly awry. When that’s the case, the media pounce like a pack of rabid dogs.
Nixon did something wrong, but one can’t help thinking that similar infractions wouldn’t have received as much attention if committed by one of the Kennedy brothers. How busy were investigative reporters with, for example, the case of Teddy, the Chappaquiddick swimming champ? And had Joe Biden paid off a talkative hooker with campaign funds, would the media be as worked up?
Whenever and however politicians are involved, so is politics. But that doesn’t excuse either Nixon or Trump, whose actions damaged the presidency. With Nixon the damage was substantive: he was a president accused of trying to cheat his way to a second term.
Trump’s misdeeds are minor by comparison, but only in essence. One could argue that he harms the institution even more stylistically, by compromising its dignity and honour. This regardless of what we may think of his policies, executed or proposed.
For the record, I quite like most of them. But that’s neither here nor there.
Alexander Boot (born 1948) is a Russian-born writer of books and articles, previously a university lecturer and an advertising and public relations executive. His work promotes traditionalist conservatism and European culture. See further: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Boot