Opinion

Trump and the end of American ideals

What the president admitted on 60 Minutes

If you watched President Trump's interview with Lesley Stahl on Sunday night's 60 Minutes, you may have noticed that he gave two answers to the question of what America would do if it's proven — as widely believed — that the Saudis murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident and frequent contributor to The Washington Post.

Trump's first answer was the same answer just about any president would've given: "We would be very upset and angry if that were the case."

The second answer — and probably the more honest one — was also the same answer most presidents would've given, but almost never in public: He talked about military contracts. "I tell you what I don't want to do," Trump told Stahl. "Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these com — I don't want to hurt jobs. I don't want to lose an order like that."

In other words: America is making too much money off of Saudi Arabia to let something so trifling as the murder of a journalist upend the relationship. There's nothing new about that — the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia and its royal rulers has always been transactional. What is new is this American president, who can barely be bothered to espouse his country's traditional humanitarian and democratic ideals.

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Trump might be a prolific liar, but he's not actually much of a hypocrite. He wears his vice — and now America's — squarely on his sleeve.

Some people might call this "the end of America's innocence," but that phrase has been used so often that it's cliche, a description of our collective reaction to everything from the assassination of JFK to the country's loss in Vietnam to the attacks of 9/11. In truth, America hasn't been that innocent: This country supposedly originated on the ideas of liberty and democracy, but was built largely on the backs of slaves and for decades has undone the expressed will of citizens in countries ranging from Chile to Iran. America's innocence was always a myth.

Sometimes, though, it has been a useful myth.

On the domestic scene, at least, it has often been the case that when America's professed ideals collide with its reality, the reality has given way. A country that celebrates July 4 as "Independence Day" was going to have to reconcile its talk of liberty with slavery sooner or later, was always going to have to wrestle with Jim Crow. We're still wrestling, but a great thing you can say about this country is that given the choice between our ugly selves and our beautiful aspirations, we've often elected to try to reach for our aspirations.

The myth has also been used as a cudgel. For every person who pointed out that America's interference in Iran in the 1950s helped set loose reactionary forces in the Middle East that persist to this day, there have been two or three hawkish conservatives quick to label those observations as part of a "blame America" attitude and who have decried efforts at "moral equivalency." When Barack Obama gently suggested that the United States had made some mistakes in the region, or that other countries had their own pride, Republicans labeled his remarks an "apology tour." When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said in August that America "was never that great," he basically wrote the obituary for his presidential dreams.

Then Trump came along sounding for all the world like Howard Zinn, and Republicans eagerly signed on.

"Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe," Trump said in 2015, when Joe Scarborough challenged his affinity for journalist-murdering Vladimir Putin. Trump wasn't wrong. It's just that politicians who wanted to be president had never been allowed to say such things publicly. And it wasn't an isolated incident: Over time, he has tended to speak highly of autocratic strongmen while generally downplaying American virtue.

Of course, Trump hasn't been calling the United States to account. He was — and is — making a case for power, pure and simple.

There have long been two ways of looking at the idea of American exceptionalism: One is that this country is exceptionally powerful. The other is that this country is exceptionally good. Most successful politicians have fused the two ideas, convincing the country that might makes right — even if our leaders have mostly been too smart to ever use such a loaded term.

Trump occasionally pays lip service to American goodness, but it's clear that power is his abiding interest. And that has consequences.

If America is only exceptional in its power — if our ideals aren't better, if our moral aspirations aren't even a tiny bit higher — then there are no real barriers to the use of that power. If we're just another country, but with bigger and better guns, then we don't have to worry about our obligations to refugees, or apologize to countries where we've made mistakes, or even act like disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of minority voters matters all that much. Accountability is for suckers. The only thing left that matters is will and the ability to enforce it.

Or, as Trump told Lesley Stahl on Sunday: "I'm president, and you're not."

No, Donald Trump is not the end of America's innocence. But he might be the end of this country's self-mythologizing. In the long run, that may be good: The truth sets you free. On Sunday night, though, we got a clearer view at what power looks like when unleashed from moral standards and aspirations: It looks like a shrug when a journalist is murdered.

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