Presidents have many jobs, and one is telling us who we are.
For the first 240 years of U.S. history, at least, our most revered chief executives reliably articulated a set of high-minded, humanist values that bound together a diverse nation by naming what we aspired to: democracy, humanity, equality. The Enlightenment ideals Thomas Jefferson etched onto the Declaration of Independence were given voice by Presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama.
Donald Trump doesn’t talk like that. In the 18 months since his Inauguration, Trump has mentioned “democracy” fewer than 100 times, “equality” only 12 times and “human rights” just 10 times. The tallies, drawn from factba.se, a searchable online agglomeration of 5 million of Trump’s words, contrast with his predecessors’: at the same point in his first term, Ronald Reagan had mentioned equality three times as often in recorded remarks, which included 48 references to human rights, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Trump embraces a different set of values. He speaks often of patriotism, albeit in the narrow sense of military duty, or as the kind of loyalty test he’s made to NFL players. He also esteems religious liberty and economic vitality. But American’s 45th President is “not doing what rhetoricians call that ‘transcendent move,'” says Mary E. Stuckey, a communications professor at Penn State University and author of Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity. Instead, with each passing month he is testing anew just how far from our founding humanism his “America first” policies can take us. And over the past two months on our southern border, we have seen the result.
...A week after his return from the June 12 summit with North Korea’s dictator, family separation dominated the national conversation like no other political story since former FBI chief James Comey was shown the door. A steadily building wave of revulsion washed over the political spectrum, from MSNBC to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to Franklin Graham and into the White House living quarters, when a spokeswoman for the First Lady said she called for “a country that governs with heart.”
Which leaves us facing a question: What kind of country are we? The world has been nervously asking that since November 2016. And while Trump ultimately capitulated on the forced separation of children, his new order suggested that families would be detained not only together, but perhaps indefinitely. For many Americans, the forced separation of immigrant families left them looking into the void from which the brutal policy emerged: the dark space left by the words Trump does say.
...What’s lost in Trump’s approach is any expectation of higher purpose. He makes no apology for lavishing praise on authoritarian leaders that past U.S. Presidents dealt with at arm’s length—Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (“somebody that’s been very close to me from the first time I met him”), the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte (“great relationship”) and Russia’s “strong leader” Vladimir Putin. When China’s Xi Jinping announced he would be President for life, placing 1.4 billion people deeper under government control, Trump offered congratulations.
...The story we tell the world is also the story we tell ourselves. Trump began June by blowing up the G-7 gathering of the world’s leading democracies by refusing to sign a joint statement endorsing “shared values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and our commitment to promote a rules-based international order.” He slapped tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union, advised France to drop out of the E.U., and urged Germans to support right-wing anti-immigrant parties intent on deposing Chancellor Angela Merkel. The leaders of France and Canada replied by citing “values,” but Trump had moved on to Singapore, where he praised North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, whose regime actively operates a network of gulags, as “a funny guy … very smart … his country does love him. You see the fervor.”
...It was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of the early American character, who recognized the danger of placing too much value on business, law and order at the expense of the higher values. Warning of the country’s obsession with material gain and the enforcement of order necessary to pursue it, he wrote, “A nation that asks nothing of its government but the maintenance of order is already a slave at heart.”
Which is why the test posed with Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy is as much about our future as it is about the tragedy of the families separated by its implementation. Trump may have backed down on the specific practice of family separation, but the larger question remains. In the balance between the integrity of the U.S. border with Mexico and a parent’s love for a child, where will we come down?
“Without a Border, you don’t have a Country,” the President wrote on June 19. Everyone knows that. The question is, what kind of country?