The presidency is a hard job.
Presidents must be all things to all people: master politician, but above politics. A common person, but of superhuman abilities. A pragmatic leader, but someone who is uncompromising.
No one can do it all.
Why all of the conflicting expectations? In addition to serving as Chief Executive, the office requires its occupant perform other roles simultaneously. A few of these are as Chief Diplomat, Chief Legislator, Chief of Party, and National Pastor.
A president can be forgiven for failing at one of them. Jimmy Carter, for instance, squandered legislative majorities due to his ineptness at congressional negotiation. George W. Bush chose to invade Iraq, isolating the United States from many of its international partners. Theodore Roosevelt, though a life-long Republican, ended his political career by leading a third-party challenge against his former party—and his own chosen successor.
Yet Donald Trump is the first president in modern American history to fail every step of the way.
Clinton Rossiter once called the president the “one-man distillation of the American people.” They are first person we come to associate with the United States. Their job is to represent the American people on the world stage.
Donald Trump’s unabashed nationalism—centered upon the idea that America will no longer be taken advantage of—undermines America’s leadership on the world stage.
Trump has singlehandedly abandoned core liberal democratic nations in favor of authoritarian regimes. He has isolated longtime allies Germany, Australia, and Mexico, all the while praising authoritarian strongmen in Russia, North Korea, and the Philippines. He is more at home in authoritarian regimes where protests were suppressed, such as Saudi Arabia, than nations like France.
He purposefully undermines faith in America’s treaty obligations. From NATO, to NAFTA, to the Iran nuclear deal Trump’s seems incapable of adhering to a deal that he himself did not write. His criticism of the Paris Climate Accord? That it isn’t fair to America—but don’t worry, he could negotiate a better deal.
Finally, while the president may be America’s chief diplomat, he is not its only diplomat. Trump does not seem to grasp this. He has purposefully understaffed the State Department, proposed cutting its budget by 33%, and thanked Putin for expelling American diplomats because it “cut down our payroll.”
This not American leadership.
President Trump has yet to guide any part of his legislative agenda through Congress. His healthcare repeal foundered, in large part because he couldn’t be bothered to understand what was in the bill. As has been reported, Trump didn’t make a case for the bill—just for the American people to trust him. Such appeals may convince his base, but they offer nothing to persuade the rest of the electorate, let alone wayward congresspeople.
What of the rest of Trump’s agenda? Congressional allocations for Trump’s border wall (which, it turns out, Mexico is not paying for) have hit a snag in the Senate. Congress has yet to outline Trump’s promised tax reform legislation. And despite infrastructure being the only item approaching bipartisan on the president’s agenda, Trump has gotten in his own way during each of his planned rollout attempts.
In fact, the only major legislative accomplishment during his presidency so far has been a Russian sanctions bill. It was passed with veto-proof majorities, and very much against Trump’s wishes.
Donald Trump argues that he has been successful—signing the more bills than any other president (he hasn’t). As evidence, he points either to inconsequential bill signings or his numerous executive orders. Yet a president who is forced to act through executive order is in actuality quite weak, forced to act unilaterally because they can’t get Congress to work with them on anything).
Donald Trump ran as a Republican. He won as a Republican. The House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. “Unified” government is usually associated with an initial burst of legislation. Think Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days, or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation.
Yet Donald Trump has squandered these majorities. He is seemingly as happy attacking Republicans as Democrats.
Trump threatened Dean Heller (R-NV) on television, while Heller was seated next to him. He ordered his Interior Secretary to threaten Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) with losing federal funds for not voting as he liked. Most recently, he has been publically ridiculing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for perceived failings.
And that’s just his response to losing the healthcare fight.
Donald Trump can’t get anything done because he lacks the “power to persuade” even his own party. His tactic is either obsequious flattery for others (whom he calls “rock stars,” mostly because he picked them), or vitriolic attack once they are insufficiently loyal. Case in point: Trump’s praise for Reince Priebus, followed shortly by his derision.
These skills do not earn respect or loyalty in Washington. He is all bully, no pulpit.
Presidents are virtually assured that some national tragedy will occur on their watch. At such times, the president must speak to the nation. Sometimes this means soothing the grieving, sometimes it means assuring the nation of our moral resolve.
These are the moments that often come to define presidencies, and every president approaches the task differently.
For Ronald Reagan, it was his soothing speech following the tragic loss of the space shuttle Challenger. For George W. Bush, it was his impromptu speech that mixed bravado and reassurance, delivered through bull horn at the site of the World Trade Center attack. For Barack Obama, it was the numerous times he led the nation in grief following a mass shooting.
Last week was Donald Trump’s first test as national pastor, and he failed miserably. He equivocated. He delayed condemnation. And fewer than 24 hours after condemning white nationalists, he backtracked.
All the while, the American people mourned. They hurt. They yearned for a moral leader—only to realize that there was none in the Oval Office.
There is something tragic about Donald Trump’s inability to perform this basic moral duty of the presidency. In him we have a president who is singularly incapable of empathy.
The American people have had ineffective presidents. We have had presidents of poor character. We have had presidents who made bad decisions and seemed incapable of righting them.
Yet we have never had a president who, systematically, could not perform the job. Until today.
The reasons behind Donald Trump’s ineptitude are now strikingly clear. He is unfit to be president. He is, like no president before him, distinctly un-American.
He does not share our commitment to liberal western values, and so cannot represent the nation on the world stage. He is uninterested in governing and passing legislation, only in self-aggrandizement, and so cannot shepherd policy through Congress. He believes loyalty is a one-way-street, and so cannot lead his own party. And he lacks basic human empathy, and therefore is incapable of serving as a moral leader.
Donald Trump is categorically unfit to be the leader of a free people.