For the first time since the end of World War I, the president of the United States is not the leader of the free world.
When the guns fell silent at the end of the Great War on Nov. 11, 1918, Europe was in ashes after more than four years of fighting. America was newly ascendant, a leader in manufacturing, science, military power and global influence – with a home front untouched by the destruction of war.
Our leading role as the most powerful and influential nation on Earth was solidified with our victory in World War II.
We never looked back -- until now.
America remains the cultural and political North Star for individuals around the globe and a magnet for immigrants. As a society we will carry the cultural torch for self-determination and the inherent rights of individuals everywhere.
In addition, the U.S. remains the most powerful nation on the planet.
But unlike his predecessors in the past 100 years, President Trump is not the leader of the free world. To hold that title, the president of the United States must be seen the world over as someone who:
- Cherishes, protects and espouses the virtues of a free press.
- Abides by and advocates for the rule of law.
- Protects and where possible expands the rights of citizens – especially in things like voting and dissent.
- Closely coordinates with our democratic allies.
Never in my life – from wearing an “Apartheid Sucks” shirt in high school to working for three presidential campaigns – did I doubt that that any Democratic or Republican president regarded himself as a steward of the Western democratic experiment.
Across the board, all our presidents have shared an instinctual historical compass, the foundation of which was the forward march of democracy here domestically and abroad. That instinct was so elemental it barely deserved or received notice.
The arc of human progress in the last couple hundred years goes like this: defined by the inherent rights of the individual – and the belief that those rights are neither granted by monarchs nor churches – government has been held accountable by a free press to serve the people.
In authoritarian nations, the people serve their government. In America, we call our leaders public servants because they work for us. This is our shared inheritance and much blood has been spilled to protect it.
Take note how President Trump – when confronted by elements of the Constitution that may impede or even delay the implementation of his wishes – casually brushes those elements aside as annoyances.
Look at President Trump and apply the same standards:
Cherishing, protecting and espousing the virtues of a free press: Look at leaders around the world who exercise the most brutal suppression of the press. Compare their actions to President Trump, who denounces any news story he doesn’t like as “fake news,” calls journalists “the enemy of the people,” and says things that are not true. Trump admires dictators and seems in many ways to be envious of their ability to jail and punish reporters.
Abiding by and advocating for the rule of law: Take note how President Trump – when confronted by elements of the Constitution that may impede or even delay the implementation of his wishes – casually brushes those elements aside as annoyances.
Add to this his publicly threatening witnesses in an investigation into his campaign, while praising other witnesses so they don’t flip on him. Add to that Trump’s public badgering of those doing the investigation, and trying to fire those doing the investigation. Then look at how Trump has appeared to violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution and raked in cash from foreign governments while in office. Or look at how he has shown overt hostility to any check or balance from co-equal branches of government. Examples of this are the president’s ignoring the legal process for adding a census question, impugning the integrity of a federal judge based on his ethnic background, and ignoring legitimate congressional oversight actions.
Protecting and where possible expanding the rights of citizens, especially in things like voting and dissent: This receives less notice because it is not a routine part of President Trump’s complaints and grievances, But make no mistake that the census question push, and the wink and nod extended to redistricting efforts about to be undertaken by state governments after this next census, is all about diminishing the franchise of voting.
For the first time in our history, diminishing voting rights is a political strategy of one party. And Trump’s recent attacks on four congresswomen for being critical of our government reflects his belief that obedience is superior to dissent, which puts him squarely at odds with our history and what makes this country unique. Had our ancestors obeyed the authority of the British king 240 years ago our country would not exist. Yet today President Trump is actively trying to disempower Americans and portray dissent as anti-American.
Close coordination with our allies: Perhaps the saddest pillar of President Trump’s negligence is the intentional vandalism he has carried out against our international alliances. Born of bloodshed 100 years ago in World War I – then tested and tempered repeatedly since – the trans-Atlantic alliance remains the central vehicle by which we defend the Western Democratic experiment.
President Trump has not missed a single chance to denigrate the alliance and say kind words about the opposing forces. In Trump’s moral universe, a brutal North Korean dictator who fed his uncle to dogs is our friend, while Canada – by far one of our best trading partners and steadiest of allies – is a national security threat. While sending anti-democratic signals to our allies, President Trump sends words of friendship and moral support to dictators and thugs.
President Trump could be all the positive things his base wanted and voted for – a voice for the voiceless, a fighter and an anti-elitist – without his anti-democratic actions.
That said, the American president has to embody certain values and advance – or at least defend – the basic pillars of our country and those like it. To be a leader one has to lead. He has to push and prod, convince enemies and support allies – not denigrate, dismantle and dismiss.
President Trump fails on each count, leaving us with a president who is not the leader of the free world for the first time since our presidents took up that mantle 100 years ago.