The president of the United States leads the world’s largest economy and commands the largest, most deadly military in world history, one that possesses the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. Ultimately, however, what gives the president his authority and legitimacy is his status as representative of Western morality and ethics: without that, he is just another bully or corrupter.
Last week again made clear the extraordinary gap between the demands of the U.S. presidency, in particular that moral dimension, and the ability of Donald Trump to meet them. The White House wrestled with continuing dysfunction and an incoherent and inconsistent foreign policy. But most disturbing — indeed damning — was President Trump’s response to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his inability to forthrightly and without qualification condemn neo-Nazi and racist demonstrators. His equivocation has cost him, his administration and his country dearly.
On Aug.11-12, a group of white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville to ostensibly protest the removal of a statute of Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park in the city. The “Unite the Right” rally was in fact a reassertion of white power and supremacy, punctuated by anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi sloganeering, and populated by members of the Ku Klux Klan, extremist militias and other white supremacist groups. They were confronted by other groups that opposed their message of intolerance. The groups clashed and a man rammed his car into some of the counter-protesters, killing a woman and wounding 19.
Trump was silent for several hours before condemning the violence — a restraint that he has not shown after other incidents of Muslim-incited or suspected violence. When he did respond, he condemned violence “on many sides, on many sides.” The assertion of a moral equivalence between the two groups outraged Americans and triggered condemnation across the political spectrum. Two days later he provided a more forthright denunciation of neo-Nazi groups, saying “racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs.” But that clarity was erased the very next day when he doubled-down on his original comments, saying that there was “blame on both sides.”
Trump’s refusal to draw a firm line and stick to it has had devastating consequences. First, controversy again overshadowed his ability to conduct the business of the presidency. Last week was supposed to be “Infrastructure Week, during which the administration would release a slew of new initiatives and present a new advisory council on that topic. Not only were those efforts ignored, but the advisory panel was shelved.
Second, as a result of those remarks, two other business leader advisory councils — one on policy and the other on manufacturing — were disbanded, supposedly by Trump but in reality he dissolved them before the members publicly quit. This is a critical rupture in Trump’s ties with the business community, repudiation by a constituency of which he was thought to be a member and whose support was considered essential to his presidency. Late last week, all 17 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities tendered their resignations in protest.
The third, and most important, consequence of Trump’s behavior last week was the loss of his moral authority. From his campaign to the present, Trump has consistently refused to disavow the extreme right, leading many to believe that it has his sympathies. Whether that is a political calculation or the manifestation of his personal beliefs is irrelevant. The failure to forthrightly denounce such extremism — a striking contrast with the speed and bluntness of his statements against other groups, such as Islamic terrorists — disqualifies him from any claim to moral leadership of his country, and by extension of the West.
Americans look to their president for clarity and leadership in moments of crisis. They expect him to provide an explanation for wrongs that occur, and through his words and presence, a balm for their sufferings. Rightly or wrongly, the U.S. president, like any national leader, is expected to help the nation transcend a particular moment of pain, to remind them of a greater purpose and a greater good. Barack Obama was especially good at evoking that sense of purpose and community; even George W. Bush, who was better known for malapropisms and twisted syntax, could rise to the occasion. Last week, Trump failed that test.
The power of the U.S. president to affect the economy or “solve” a foreign policy problem is limited. His real authority derives from the capacity to lead the nation, to marshal its formidable strengths and rally it behind him in moments of crisis. The events last week revealed a man who is not up to that task. His nation and the world will suffer for it.