One hundred days, too many of them filled with needless drama and gratuitous insult, and still I remember the first full one. Still it makes me cringe.
That was when Donald Trump visited and made remarks at the CIA. He had fences to mend with the U.S. intelligence community, whose failure to fall fawningly in line with his nascent administration had prompted him to compare them to Nazis. He stood before a wall of stars that commemorated lives sacrificed for country.
And what message did he bring? What manner did he summon?
He lied, saying that the media had invented his feud with the agency. He lashed out at suggestions that his inaugural crowds hadn’t been the biggest and most orgiastic. To top it all off, he crowed about how often he’d claimed the cover of Time magazine, because who isn’t fascinated by that? Who doesn’t want a running tally? Whose heart doesn’t beat faster when Trump yet again ponders the glory of Trump?
He was president at that point. Vindicated. Inaugurated. He could decide to be big. But he chose to be small, and it was clear then, if it hadn’t been before, that there would be no pivot to dignity, which was either beyond his capabilities or outside his interests.
Most historians, political analysts and other observers are taking stock of him at this presidential mile marker in terms of his legislative cul-de-sacs, his policy flips and flops, his executive actions and his foreign policy, such as it is.
But that minimizes and, yes, normalizes the most distinctive aspect of Trump’s presidency, which is his complete and consistent rejection of the conventional etiquette of the office – of public comportment that speaks to the best in us, not the worst.
The other presidents in my lifetime have at least done a pantomime of the qualities that we try to instill in children: humility, honesty, magnanimity, generosity. Even Richard Nixon took his stabs at these. Trump makes a proud and almost ceaseless mockery of them.
And while I worry plenty that he'll achieve some of his most ill-conceived policy goals, I’m just as fearful that he has already succeeded in changing forever the expected demeanor of someone in public office.
All around me people shrug and yawn at his latest petulant tirade, his newest baseless tweet, his freshest assertion that the numbers that the rest of us see are just optical illusions and he really did win the popular vote. Even outrage grows boring, and it begins to feel pointless: His obnoxiousness isn’t going to get him impeached.
Besides, the mendacity, the grandiosity: That’s just Trump being Trump. It’s old news by now. Many readers will get this far in this column and wonder why I and other naysayers don’t just let it go and cut him a break. As if we’re stuck on piddling things and his bearing is nothing more than peculiar.
But when something no longer provokes remark, it becomes unremarkable, and the road from there to acceptable is a short one.
In her own warped way, Kellyanne Conway grasped this earlier and better than almost anyone else, giving nearly perfect expression to it. She was at a Harvard University forum in December, deconstructing the presidential election, and Jake Tapper asked her if Trump’s splenetic tweets, such as his unsupported assertion that Hillary Clinton had benefited from millions of illegal votes, constituted presidential behavior.
“Well, he’s the president-elect,” she said. “So that’s presidential behavior, yes.” She was dead right, inasmuch as our sense of how presidents can and should conduct themselves is established by the conduct of presidents so far. From the moment Trump joined the long line of our commanders in chief, he began to change the terms and the tenor of the job.
My glasses aren’t rose-colored and my recall is clear: The presidency was degraded plenty by his predecessors, more than a few of whom had their own stripes and streaks of rashness, pettiness and cupidity. There were tortured psyches and tawdry doings before Trump. I haven’t forgotten Monica Lewinsky or the Lincoln Bedroom.
But who among the presidents of the past half-century has been so publicly cavalier about conflicts of interest, so blithe about getting away with whatever grifts he could, so lavishly meanspirited and so proudly rude? Who among those presidents made so little concession to decorum?
Who stooped so low, on the campaign trail or in office, as to ridicule a disabled journalist and make light of a prisoner of war’s ordeal? Who talked incessantly about how heroic his election was, summoning more energy for self-congratulation than he ever exhibited for the praise of others?
Who taunted his adversaries with such abandon? Who made such a spectacle of his grievances that he invented a phenomenon: sore winning?
Trump’s fans can excuse and explain all of this, and there are glimmers of merit in some of what they say:
He is owning up to, and not laboring to disguise, the emotional currents that move most politicians. He has honed his vanity into a kind of weapon, so it’s useful if not honorable. There’s a candor to the way he does things; a boldness and an authenticity, too. Politicians who feigned rectitude didn’t take the country where it needed to go. Why not give a shot to one who doesn’t bother much with the pretense?
Now he has his shot, and I continue to root for him to govern wisely, because we’re the real losers if he doesn’t. I’m heartened by occasional signs that he’s learning and by flickers of flexibility.
But I’m sickened by the lack of deference that he still shows toward traits that we’ve long and rightly extolled. It’s one thing to fall short of them, as so many presidents have. It’s quite another to step onto the inaugural stage, put your hand on the Bible and then go out of your way to belittle the past presidents who are sitting, respectfully, just a few feet away.
That’s what Trump did on the afternoon before he went to the CIA, and on both occasions he wasn’t just assaulting propriety. He was fashioning a new model of leadership. He was saying that it could strut and seethe and whine like this. He was consigning an entire roster of virtues to the junkyard of the quaint.
They remain there 100 days later – but not, I hope, forever.