This Monday is Presidents Day, intended to commemorate George Washington and the services of America’s past presidents. It’s a holiday that typically passes without much notice, but now requires a more somber reckoning. Donald Trump’s actions as commander in chief thus far should compel us to consider the essentials of presidential leadership ― and the existential dangers of a president who disdains them.
Our best presidents displayed qualities of mind, character and spirit, which illuminate Trump’s unfitness. They respected the institutions of democracy ― the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press and co-equal branches of government whose powers are circumscribed. They honored the sinews of a free society: a tolerance for difference in thought and belief; a regard for fact and reasoned discourse; a commitment to provide opportunity for all; and the resolve to prevail against internal and external threats to freedom and human decency. Most important, they strove to inspire the best in us.
We need not airbrush history to hold its mirror to Donald Trump. Past presidencies were blemished by hubris, profound moral failings and grave errors of judgment. Some presidents abused their powers and told grievous lies. Even our most gifted failed crucial tests of leadership — Franklin Roosevelt approved the internment of Japanese-Americans; Lyndon Johnson misled us about the war in Vietnam.
But at crucial times, often in extremity, disparate presidents of both parties defined the essence of our democracy by furthering its highest values. Their conduct defines the standards which Trump flouts.
Our first president helped set the proper limits of his power. George Washington fully discharged executive authority while respecting Congress and the judiciary. As general and president, he upheld the primacy of civilian rule. And by leaving office after two terms, he modeled that the presidency was greater than its occupant.
Like Washington, our exemplary presidents have striven to heal, not promote, civic rupture — including the bitter legacy of one of America’s founding sins: slavery. Perhaps the finest, Abraham Lincoln, met our greatest internal crisis with wisdom, eloquence and resolve, winning the war over slavery while summoning a spirit of national reconciliation.
For 150 years and counting, the enduring legacy of racial injustice has challenged Lincoln’s successors. The best responded by combating inequity and appealing to our collective conscience.
Despite his reluctance to confront legalized segregation, Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, fulfilling his duty to uphold the rule of law.
Jolted from passivity by the civil rights movement, John F. Kennedy issued a demand for racial justice striking in its call to empathy. “If an American,” he asked, “cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
After Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson rallied the bipartisan support necessary to ban de jure segregation and voter discrimination — even though this irreparably damaged his party’s fortunes in the South. Though deep inequities remain, presidential leadership has fused with civil activism to advance racial justice and understanding.
The Great Depression could have torn our society apart. Franklin Roosevelt resolved that it would not. Evoking a fresh spirit of optimism, Roosevelt transformed the presidency by deploying its powers to alleviate mass misery. His presidency combined inspiration and decisiveness with the ability to choose good advisers, perceive changing conditions, and adapt to the needs of the moment. By doing so, he showed that an activist government can serve the common good ― and that a successful president must govern by inspiring hope, not by sowing divisiveness and fear.
Another essential of presidential leadership is the ability to inspire ― and deserve ― trust. At its best, this reflects sincerity, consistency, candor, and the resolve to keep promises, make hard decisions and take responsibility. Dwight Eisenhower rarely achieved eloquence. But few doubted his soundness of character.
Sometimes presidential character requires placing the national interest above political survival. In 1988, George H.W. Bush won the election by promising “no new taxes.” But two years later, he feared that a ballooning deficit would saddle future generations with unsustainable levels of debt. To prevent this, he made a deal with Democrats in Congress which included new taxes — aware he might be “signing my political death warrant.” He was. But he also helped facilitate the prosperity Americans enjoyed under Bill Clinton.
Grace counts, too — the ability to uplift public spirits in hard moments. So does wit, especially if self-deprecating. JFK had these gifts, as did Ronald Reagan. And so ― lest we forget so soon what these qualities look like ― did Barack Obama.
Another prerequisite of presidential leadership is positive involvement with the wider world. This includes a deep commitment to protecting American democracy from external threats, and the discernment to use diplomatic and economic engagement to advance peace, human rights and national security.
No presidential enterprise is more fraught with risk, or more unforgiving of misjudgment. Too often, we have supported autocrats or rashly intervened in other countries, impelled by blinkered notions of self-interest. Too often these mistakes — notably Vietnam and Iraq — have been even more tragic for others than for Americans.
But, at its best, America has been a force for global stability and freedom whose example inspires others and which ― at least until now ― provided a refuge for the endangered and oppressed. Nowhere is enlightened presidential leadership more important ― or its absence more perilous.
Before World War II, Franklin Roosevelt surmounted American isolationism to enact the Lend-Lease program critical to England’s survival against Hitler. After the war, Harry Truman deployed America’s economic strength to underwrite democracy in Western Europe, initiating the Marshall Plan to create “the political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” His vision facilitated 70 years of peace in Western Europe, and helped precipitate the collapse of Soviet hegemony in the East.
As the Soviet bloc began to crumble, George H.W. Bush chose discretion over chest-thumping. By winning Mikhail Gorbachev’s trust, he negotiated a reduction of forces between NATO and Russia. And by underplaying America’s reaction to Russia’s slipping dominance, he facilitated the liberation of its satellites. The peaceful transition of millions to freedom and autonomy owes much to Bush’s humility and foresight.
Finally, a modern president must have the resources to master the dangers of the nuclear age — inspiring public confidence, reading friends and adversaries, parsing conflicting advice, and anticipating consequences — fortified by steady nerves, sound judgment, and detachment from self. In the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy needed all these attributes to stave off nuclear calamity.
Contrast these qualities of leadership with the character of Donald Trump.
His chronic lying corrodes public trust. He stokes bigotry and divisiveness. He evaluates everyone he deals with in terms of how cravenly they flatter him.
He habitually derides others but has no humor about himself. His actions are suffused with grandiosity, impulsiveness, vindictiveness, a consuming sense of grievance, a comprehensive lack of empathy, an indifference to consequence and changes of course so bewildering that they bespeak the untethered mind of a man who sees the Oval Office merely as a soundstage for his endless song of self.
His instincts are profoundly authoritarian. His public statements are unmoored from fact or reason. He has no grasp of history, no values which transcend self-interest. He attacks any institution which can hold him accountable, lashes out at critics great and small, and scorns advice which contravenes his immediate desires.
His foreign policy mirrors this consuming self-fascination. He is bereft of strategy, unschooled in geopolitics, and oblivious to the aims of rivals like China or Russia. He bristles with contradictory demands, transitory proposals, and infantile boasts — alienating our allies, emboldening our adversaries, and degrading the coin of American leadership.
He dotes on murderous autocrats, most ominously Vladimir Putin. His refusal to defend America against Russia’s attack on our election is an inexcusable act of disloyalty and dereliction. In a world bristling with nuclear peril, he rejects the post-World War II system of democratic alliances, global institutions and respect for human rights in favor of nationalistic bluster which isolates America and abandons our role as a global leader.
Fatefully, Trump personifies the only model he can grasp — a system of unilateral bargaining pitting one self-seeking adversary against the other. And so the real world outside his ken grows ever more dangerous and dystopian.
The ultimate American tragedy is that, heedless of past presidents who reflected the best in us, we have armed this man with infinite power. The path from George Washington to Donald Trump shames us.
For the sake of America and the world, Trump must go.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.