Toxic Trump a long-term threat to the presidency

The daily outrages have grown tiresome. What was once shocking has become less and less interesting.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s behaviour, the craziness surrounding his office — porn stars, law enforcement raids on his personal lawyer’s office, the bald-face lies — has become the “new normal.”

But even as we all grow numb to the chaos, serious, long-term trouble lurks.

The seriousness, respect and responsibility that comes with the Office of the President of the United States is being eroded by the day.

According to Gallup, trust in institutions and the political process is at an all-time low. In fact, all American governmental institutions now experience trust levels below 50 per cent.

And Trump and his antics are not helping.

It’s important that the public has trust in public institutions. According to the World Economic Forum, “strong institutions empower economies by ensuring a stable operating environment,” whereby, confidence in the institutions of civil society is what differentiates advanced economies from developing ones.

The president’s behaviour puts this balance at risk.

What’s more, there is no reason to think anything will happen to prevent all this from continuing.

First, Trump was elected as a direct result of the diminished trust Americans have in the institutions that govern them. Trump promised to be different, and that he certainly is.

Second, Trump is delivering to his supporters exactly what he promised them. He has railed against Washington elites, spurred job growth, cut taxes and has protected workers from trading partners everywhere. He may also have scored a diplomatic victory in Korea, something that, shockingly, has put him, according to the pundits, on the Nobel Peace Prize short list.

If Trump’s behaviour, and, by extension, the chaos surrounding his administration, is giving him the desired results, why would he change?

Furthermore, why would an eventual successor to the office of the presidency change course? The U.S. must confront the question of whether a president can lie, tamper with the justice system and meddle in criminal investigations without consequence.

James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the United States and its 4th president, famously said, that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” And while I don’t believe for a moment Madison ever imagined a President Trump when he wrote that, it does highlight that the presidency was designed by the framers of the Constitution to withstand strong headwinds.

I agree with Madison. I believe that the institution — and America itself — can withstand a rogue player. That said, I remain extremely concerned about the long-term consequences of this pattern of behaviour.

In the early 20th century, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the office of the President as a “bully pulpit.” A place where, when the President spoke, the country, in fact, the world, listened. A place from which to chart the nation’s agenda.

Many have described the ability to speak to the nation from behind the resolute desk in the Oval Office as the most significant power a president has.

Since Roosevelt, the bully pulpit has been used to bring the nation together in times of challenge. Think 9/11, The Challenger disaster, or the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings. At times like these, the nation coalesced around the bully pulpit to hear their President.

Trump has, in my view, put that power at risk.

The ability to appeal to the greater good, to the country’s better angels, comes, not through the exercise of brute power, but through moral suasion; and without a moral compass, that is not possible.

In the short term, it may look like the President has had several successful weeks in terms of domestic and international policy. In fact, his antics may be giving him the short-term wins his supporters and admirers seek.

Yes, in the short term, such a politician can be portrayed as a welcome bull in the china shop filled with china that needs to be broken, someone who can finally get things done, a “different” politician.

But the long-term damage tells a different story; allegiance to this kind of politics will take us to a very unhappy place.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(Published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, May 6, 2018)