We often expect too much of those we elect president. We want them to bring us prosperity, create peace around the world, prevent tragedy from befalling us, and solve every societal ill. We give them more blame than they deserve when things go poorly and more credit than they deserve when things go well. And yet when we try to be more modest in our demands, we might at least ask that they not make everything worse — and right now, that would mean asking of the president that he not exacerbate the intense and ugly divisions that mark this era in our history.
It's a nice thought. But instead what we've got is Donald J. Trump. His talents may be sometimes hard to locate, but one thing he's very good at is sowing division and discord.
It isn't that we didn't know that by the time election day came, but he continues to amaze with his ability to take presidential duties that up until now had been sacred or just banal and twist them into something disputatious and ugly.
Can he turn the president's most somber duty — comforting the families of those who died in military operations he ordered — into a nasty controversy? Oh yes he can.
That's what he did this week, first insisting at a press conference that presidents before him (especially Barack Obama) didn't call the families of the fallen, and only he is so compassionate. When everyone pointed out that this was an odious lie, he rushed to finally call the families of the American soldiers killed two weeks ago in Niger — and managed to screw that up too. According to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a friend of the family of the late Sgt. La David Johnson who was with them when they received the call, President Trump said that Johnson "must have known what he signed up for," an impossibly insensitive thing to say. Sgt. Johnson's mother says that Wilson's account is accurate.
No one suggests that Trump set out to horrify Sgt. Johnson's widow; the problem is that he is a man completely devoid of empathy, so it's hard for him to find comforting words. But let's imagine that something similar had happened with another president, where he said something inappropriate or even unintentionally offensive to a woman whose husband had just given his life in service to the country. And let's say a member of Congress from the opposition party was criticizing him for it. Any president — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, any of them — would have almost certainly reacted in the same way. They would have said something like, "Those conversations are private, and when a member of our military makes the ultimate sacrifice, it isn't something we should have a partisan argument about. The only thing we should do is honor and celebrate them." And they would have left it at that.
But not Trump, who is so petty and insecure that he is constitutionally incapable of letting any criticism go by without a counter-attack. He took to Twitter to say: "Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!" We all know he doesn't have "proof," just like he lied about having tapes of his conversations with James Comey.
So here we are, with Trump getting very close to initiating a squabble with the family of a dead American soldier. Can you imagine any other president doing this?
Of course not, just like you can't imagine any other president going before military audiences and praising them for voting for him, or telling service members to support his party's agenda, or going in front of the Boy Scout Jamboree and giving a speech so filled with inappropriate political content (and even some adult themes) that it led the head of the scouts to issue a public apology.
And, of course, if Trump takes that one more step and attacks Sgt. Johnson's family — and no one will be surprised if he does — it wouldn't even be the first time he has gotten into a feud with a Gold Star family. During the 2016 campaign when he was going after Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq, all he could see was that they had criticized him; the idea that maybe he ought to show a little class and let it slide off him was not something he could entertain.
Every event, every development, every new day of his presidency has become another opportunity for Trump to cause controversy, anger, and division. If there's any strategy at work, it probably involves the president saying to himself that division is what got him here, which is undeniably true. It was anger and resentment that led all those white voters to flock to the polls for him, and he's not going to change how he operates now, particularly since division may be the only thing that will get him re-elected.
But there are times when we demand that the president represent all of us. There will be occasions when we look to him to act as a unifying force — when there's a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, any time when partisanship seems secondary and we all want to come together as Americans. Some presidents perform better than others at those moments, but until now, all have at least tried to be what the country was hoping for. Not Trump, though. He goes to Houston and lauds his crowd size. Puerto Rico gets devastated and he says the islanders are lazy. Fifty-eight people get murdered in Las Vegas and he says it's a "miracle" more weren't killed.
He'll face many more of those moments, because every president does. And he'll fail every time.