As America cries for leadership, Donald Trump accelerates its division

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 21, 2020.

Ever since that poignant morning in 2016 when Hillary Clinton took the stage in bipartisan, conciliatory purple to concede defeat to Donald Trump, I have used this space to urge people to remain calm. To remind them that America is a mature and stable democracy that will cope just fine with the tumult of a Trump presidency.

I have written that the markets will continue to function, congress will do its job, the courts will defend the Constitution and the military will refute any unlawful order.

Far from a Trump apologist, I was anchored in a belief that the breadth of modern America’s institutions — legal, civil and economic — can be depended upon to not only withstand but to keep in check the most dangerous impulses of any character who ascends to the Oval Office.

It is now clear I was mistaken.

Like a lot people I think, I allowed the good times or at least “normal” times of the day colour my lenses in imagining the impact a disastrous president could have. I never considered what would happen in bad times and how devastatingly wrong that analysis would turn out to be.

Now five months into a pandemic that has brought with it uncontemplated social and economic disruption, I no longer have to hypothesize about the theoretical impact of an unhinged presidency.

When I see Americans pitted against each other in an overdue demand for justice for African Americans, I no longer have to hypothesize about what happens when a leader governs for some of the people and not all of the people.

I can simply watch the catastrophic results play out in front of my eyes every night on Fox or CNN.

To be sure, three years of President Trump has been a revolving door of disaster. The juvenile insults, assaults on civil rights, violent outbursts and episodes of corruption have flowed from one to the next.

But now that the “good times” or the “normal times” are well and truly over and our world has been jolted from normalcy, we can clearly see the price America is paying for his nonsense.

At a time when America is being rocked to its very core; when Americans are yearning, no crying out, for a steady hand, for a North Star, for hope, there is none to be found on Pennsylvania Ave.

Clearly, Americans have endured bad presidents before. Just as we in Canada have had bad prime ministers. But it is hard to remember a time when a leader has so emphatically disengaged with their role as a leader in a time of crisis. It is even harder to imagine another White House responding to nationwide hurt and anguish with such a leering sense of menace.

When it comes it its government, America has much of which to be proud. In modern times it survived, for example, the disgrace of Watergate. By its example, it has contributed to democracy around the world. It has made its own way in that world and created a presidency that fulfils the role of not only the head of government but also the head of state. A leader comparable to the political role of a prime minister who is also endowed with the monarch-like responsibility to model a nation’s leadership and help absorb its pain.

Within that construct, there are some things that others can do, some that only the president can do.

For example, the president is often referred to as the comforter-in-chief. It is a role that Presidents Regan, Clinton and Obama fulfilled with great effect. But the truth is, it is a responsibility that can be delegated to another leader. The vice president or a religious leader for example.

But what can’t be delegated is the role the president plays when the nation needs to come together. When differences need to be set aside and common ground found. In those times, there is no substitute for the president.

The problem American faces today is Trump, by his own actions and his own hand, has forfeited that role.

By the Constitution, he retains his legal authority to govern. But by pitting one American against another, he has lost his moral authority to lead.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt