When I was in Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, I received one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given. Our platoon sergeant for Charlie Company, Sergeant Airborne Prince, said, “When in doubt, do the right thing.” I’ve repeated and reflected on that advice countless times in the decades since, and I have come to realize that it’s an almost universally-applicable ethical rule of thumb. Invariably, when I think I have a moral dilemma, I already know in my gut what the right thing to do is, I’m just trying to talk myself out of it because I desperately want to do something different.
Case in point: I desperately want to be able to say, “Donald Trump is not my President!” I not only want to say it, I want to put it on a sign in my front yard and a lapel pin I can wear every day until his inevitable impeachment. I want to replace “Hello” with “Trump is not my President,” and close all correspondence with, “Sincerely, not a constituent of Donald Trump’s.” When I read the news, I want to scream it at the top of my lungs.
As much as I want to say it, I cannot bring myself to do so because it’s not the right thing. Donald Trump will be my President, because I am an American citizen. Accepting this means I trust the Constitution to give us the means to thwart the vile agenda of Trump and his kleptocratic Cabinet without having to overthrow the federal government or undermine its legitimacy. Recognizing that Donald Trump is my President is not about recognizing any value in his incoherent platform and implausible policies. It’s about recognizing that the office, the Constitution, and the republic still stand.
Accepting that Donald Trump is my President also means accepting my shared responsibility for the catastrophically bad decision of the electorate to install someone who consistently behaves as someone temperamentally and intellectually unfit to hold the office. I certainly did not vote for the man, but I am part of a community which includes enough people who did vote for him that he won the Electoral College. Whatever combination of failures in our educational system, economic safety net, and mass media made this travesty possible, I share in the blame because – as an American – I did not work hard enough to reverse them. Donald Trump is not the President I wanted, but perhaps he is the President I deserve for my own complacency.
As a result, I will have to recognize that Donald Trump is President, not so that we can unite behind him, but so that we can unite against him. The fight to keep him out of the Oval Office is over, and – to the peril of the decency and honor of the office – we lost. The struggle now will be to protect the values we hold dear against a thin-skinned, petty tyrant and his assembled gang of abysmally unqualified sycophants, self-serving capitalist thugs, and religious fundamentalists. Engaging in that ongoing struggle requires as a first step the honest recognition that we are not shielding our citizenry from hypothetical, outside terrors, but instead from the President in whom we have invested tremendous political authority.
Understanding that Donald Trump is President is not about supporting his platform or honoring the ridiculous, divisive, and embarrassing things he says. It is about comprehending the power we have ceded to him, so that we can establish realistic strategies to mitigate his influence. We cannot formulate a cure unless we accurately diagnose the disease.
Make no mistake, the threat we face is virulent indeed. We know from his past history that an ideologically pliant, ethically questionable, and intellectually ill-equipped reality television performer like Donald Trump cannot be trusted to do the right thing. We know from a long history of polluted rivers, unbreathable air, glass ceilings, and perilous working conditions that corporations and businessmen cannot be trusted to do the right thing. We know from the legacy of “miscegenation” laws, segregation, back-alley abortions, creation “science,” and patriarchal leadership that fundamentalist religious institutions cannot be trusted to do the right thing.
As neighbors, however, we can still do the right thing. This election rent the fabric of the social contract which allowed the federal government to be our collective voice in working for the common good. We must now find ways to work together as communities – of every size – to do what we know to be the virtuous and moral thing. For that to be possible we must recognize that, whatever political differences brought us to this place, we are all American citizens under one government. Together we have elected a man who represents Americans at our very worst. We will have to come together as Americans at our very best to protect what is right, good, and just from the predations of our President.
The shame of admitting that Donald Trump is our President is one we are understandably loathe to bear. Even still, it is America’s shame, and so we must bear it as Americans if we are to have any chance of preserving the nation which failed us when it installed Donald Trump in an office he is unfit to hold. Carrying that shame together is the right thing, because it keeps us together as a nation, and it’s only together that we will be able to take on the larger, daily tasks of doing what is right to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.