No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
— Robert Frost, “Provide, Provide”
Donald Trump, whose popularity rating at the moment hovers right around 39.6 percent as of the 162nd day of his presidency, is currently the most unpopular president in our history at that point in office. But being unpopular, or being down in the polls, doth not a failed president make. We have all, in our lives, been down but not out, wounded but still kicking.
American history is replete with those who survived unpopularity, defeat, dishonor, embarrassment, even disgrace (see Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Michael Milken, even Mike Tyson) and lived to tell of it, even to redeem themselves. But few in public life can live to survive an utter absence of dignity, alternatively defined as the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed, and/or a state of formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language.
In Donald Trump we now have the least dignified human being ever to serve as President of the United States, a man whose language, demeanor and relentless narcissism, though it seems not to embarrass himself, demeans the presidency, our nation, its citizens, and, indeed, our entire species. One needs only observe the behavior of elephants — their grace in times of mourning, their concern for others of their species, the self-contained nobility of their suffering — to realize that we have now reached a new low in the worthiness of a member of our species to represent us, no matter what our political persuasion.
For myself, the behavior, the arrogance, the cruelty, the pervasive meanness of spirit and smallness of vision that characterize our current Chief Executive has become such an embarrassment that I am hesitant even to quote him, lest I seem to be somehow validating his speech. The man who goes around the country seeking to legitimize himself in the phase of criticism by proclaiming that “I’m president and they’re not,” the man who has now gone on for almost two years demeaning the size, the beauty, the intelligence, the motivations and the character of those who oppose him, is not a person I want to be associated with, even in quotation marks. He is a threat, not only to our health care, our environment, our ethics, our language and our intelligence; he is, perhaps worst of all, a living repudiation of our civility itself.
Many of us, when asked, might not be able to identify exactly what dignity is, or to easily categorize its presence or absence. But, as Supreme Court Justice Stewart famously wrote of pornography: We know it when we see it. And we can also identify its absence when its not there. “When it comes to human dignity,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel (whom, undoubtedly, Mr. Trump would describe as “ugly,” but who, at least by my own standards of beauty, is far more beautiful than the hideous Mr. Trump will ever be) has said, “we cannot make compromises.”
“For us,” wrote former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, a man who gave his life serving his country (unlike another president, who is not even willing to pay his fair share of taxes), “democracy is a question of human dignity. And human dignity is political freedom.”
The charge of high crimes and misdemeanors, on account of which our presidents may face impeachment, cover allegations such as perjury, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, failure to supervise, dereliction of duty, unbecoming conduct, and the refusal to obey a lawful order. Offending our sense of national dignity, or making those who love this country ashamed of it, are not specifically listed among them, but I can hardly think of any conduct in the history of our political life more “unbecoming” than that which we presently see before us.
For the moment, at least, Trump is absolutely right: He is president, and we are not. But we are the people who hired, and who can fire, him. For the sake of country, our pride, our standing in the world, the welfare of the downtrodden and less fortunate among us, and, yes, even the dignity of those who may have once supported him, he shouldn’t remain so much longer.
Michael Blumenthal is a writer and former visiting professor at the West Virginia University College of Law.