As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
-- H.L. Mencken, On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe
Four years ago, the United States voted a political unknown into its highest office, at least in part on the pretense that perhaps a businessman could better manage the multiple problems and challenges facing this country. Those espousing this position were likely steered in that direction by the candidate’s public persona, this man who had his name on multiple buildings and casinos, who had a very popular TV show where he projected an image of knowledge, confidence, and stature which suggested that he had the understanding and acumen to lead the most powerful country in the world. In short, these were people who believed the hype.
Sadly, that was a superficial explanation which failed to recognize the actual person supposedly having these alleged skills and capacities. The reality was considerably different for anyone bothering to look past the surface. Donald John Trump gives all the indications of being the apotheosis of sizzle replacing steak, appearance instead of substance. In short, a con man. This was the person whose book, The Art of the Deal, was ghost-written with virtually no input from its putative author, whose managerial skills were so finely honed that he underwent no less than six bankruptcies over his career, and whose personal P&L statement we would later learn currently registers at somewhere close to $1 billion in the red. He’s also the person who insisted that presidential candidate Barack Obama was not an American citizen and had proof to that effect … right up to the point where it came out that he didn’t, and after all the loud proclamations on this topic, the retraction was mostly buried in back sections of newspapers in pianissimo and precious few column-inches.
Once voted into office, it was thought that Trump would rise to the occasion and become more presidential. Never happened. Whether the setting was a news conference or state dinner or a meeting of the G7 or most especially one of the hundreds of his ego-stroking rallies, Trump was always Trump: off the cuff, coarse, frequently vulgar, almost always bullying, and about as un-presidential as is humanly possible. There was no “growing into the role” for him, especially since, in his own mind, he was already as good and capable as he needed to be. On top of that were the constant assertions that: “I know more about [fill in the blank] than anyone does,” whether we're talking about ISIS, wind energy, politicians, drones, the economy, or any one of uncounted other issues. Name the field of study and Trump will make the same ridiculous claim. Predictably, as his tenure as president proceeded, it became glaringly obvious that he knew less than very nearly anyone.
And as we have learned since his election, this was a man who lies like most people breathe. The subject could be Hillary’s emails or the size of the crowd at his inauguration or what he understood about ISIS or his attempt to bully Ukraine into digging up dirt on Joe Biden or interference in the 2016 election; there seems to be no topic which Trump will speak on where mendacity does not enter the equation. With this, a portion of the US entered a post-truth era, where inconvenient facts were supplanted by “alternative facts” which, though challenged by those who cared about facts, were gladly accepted by his base. Across the four years of his administration and despite repeated attempts to counter and debunk, the prevarications, obfuscations and downright falsehoods continued to flow from the Oval Office, whether directly from Trump or one of his representatives. The lies continued through the 2020 campaign and after, where he insists on voter fraud, “legal” and “illegal” votes, for which he unsurprisingly supplies no proof. Perhaps as a result of all of the above and too many other faults to enumerate, a sea change was reflected in the election just past, and therewith the nation is now preparing to hand its leadership off to Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., a man who is somewhat less boastful and considerably more invested in employing empathy and engendering unity than his predecessor.
So what is the takeaway from this experience? “Anyone can be president,” as the saying has it. The only requirements are to be a natural-born citizen of the United States and over 35 years of age. For the longest time, I have thought that the qualifications originally proposed 230 years ago are inadequate to the 21st century, though in the still-divided political world of the here and now, any attempt to make the qualifications for president more stringent, while a worthy idea, remains unlikely in the extreme. What we can do, what I believe we must do, is at least attempt to treat the Donald Trump presidential experiment as a cautionary tale, a warning to the citizenry of this land that, because something can be done, that doesn’t mean that it should be done.
We dodged a bullet this time. Next time, we may not be so lucky.