It's an affirmation so well-known that it's been a kind of cultural trope for decades: the image of the loving parent or supportive schoolteacher telling a child that with hard work, a positive attitude, and a strong sense of responsibility and humanity, he or she can become anything in the world -- even President of the United States. Something to this effect has been said to me at least once in my lifetime as it has to so many others throughout our nation's history. That's because since its inception the office of the president has, in the collective consciousness of the American public, represented not simply the highest vocational achievement one could strive for but a rarefied position only to be occupied by the brightest and most fundamentally decent within our society. This is why the dream of becoming president is communicated as a means of getting someone to strive to be his or her best. Because the implied conceit is that anything less just wouldn't cut it. The presidency is simply too important for the class clown or schoolyard bully to ascend to it. That would be unthinkable.
So what happens when all of that goes out the window? What happens when the unthinkable becomes extremely thinkable? What happens when the very real possibility arrives that the office of the president will be occupied not by someone we'd like to see our children aspire to but by a proudly amoral megalomaniac completely lacking in character or decency, that schoolyard bully all grown-up and still gleefully abusing those he considers beneath him, the living embodiment of the selfishness teachers and parents spend their entire lives trying to discourage? What happens when our children realize that all it takes to be President of the United States is to behave like the worst kid in their class? What then?
Now that Donald Trump has become the presumptive Republican nominee for the White House, a lot has been written about the damage he's already done to our discourse and our reputation as a superpower and the untold damage he could do with just one popular vote in November. We've been forced to reconcile tangibles, like policy proposals that include banning Muslims from entering the U.S., building a wall along the Mexican border, shutting down news outlets unfavorable to Trump, and indiscriminately bombing ISIS -- or any other threat he sees fit -- as well as intangibles like the notion of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and authoritarianism coming from the highest office in the free world. Trump has suggested essentially defaulting on America's debts by forcing our creditors to "renegotiate" and he's threatened proposals that would destabilize the U.S. to the point where the domino effect would create a danger to the entire world. He does this because he has a fundamental lack of understanding of how government works and he's so arrogant that he doesn't care one bit about learning what he doesn't know.
There's one more intangible, though, that in general goes with the office of being president and which specifically in the case of Trump would be terrifying. The president sets that great example in our culture, specifically for our children. We've certainly had presidents in the past who haven't lived up to that responsibility, but for the most part their sins have existed "within established parameters." They were flawed men but men whose actions didn't so decimate any semblance of respect that we couldn't at least make the argument that they didn't start out bad. And that's just the thing: Most of our presidents have been elected as good people and simply became bad in our eyes as they failed to do the job properly. I'm not sure we've ever seen anyone as fundamentally unfit for office or to be considered an example for the kids of this nation from the very beginning as Donald Trump. Up until now, at least we could point to the person in the oval office and highlight his educational background, or his time serving honorably in government, or his years in the military -- something. Trump has nothing. Other than wealth -- how much we don't really know because Trump is a pathological liar -- nothing to point to and offer up as exemplary.
Donald Trump is, rather, the embodiment of every quality decent parents caution their children against. We tell kids not to be vain. No one is more vain and self-obsessed than Trump. We tell them to be honest. Trump is, again, someone who lies constantly and without an ounce of shame. We tell them to treat others with respect. Trump is an abusive bully who insults and belittles those around him in the name of making himself seem more important, a chauvinist who reduces women to either sex objects or pigs, and a nativist who preaches white, American supremacy. We tell children to work hard for what they want. Trump was born with everything and has done little to achieve his success other than ultimately parlay his name into a self-serving brand. If we're good parents, we tell them that sacrifice is noble in the service of governance. Trump has never sacrificed a thing. If by some unimaginable catastrophe he wins, he'll be the least qualified president in our nation's history, a man who not only has zero experience governing but who has never even for a moment served any cause other than Donald Trump.
Maybe there have been presidents each of us didn't like for one reason or another -- presidents we didn't agree with. But we could always point to the stature of the office and explain to our children what it takes to get there. If Donald Trump were to win the White House, at no point could we say that. Because the image of Trump-as-president would show kids that there's no need to play fair or be honorable or strive for intellectual excellence. It would show kids that the schoolyard bully is, in fact, the one who always gets ahead; he's the guy who can go all the way to the presidency. And should they pay attention, they'll see as Trump abuses his power and shuts down enemies of his thin-skinned dominion with the full authority of the United States government that that's how you win. They'll see that the kid in their class who never studies and forgets to do his homework and so basically just wings it, adding, say, a dozen extra "very"s into his book report until it's obvious he has no idea what he's talking about -- that's the kid who becomes president. That's all it takes.
During Donald Trump's interview with Fox News's Megyn Kelly earlier this week, she asked him point blank about exactly the crisis of national conscience I'm referring to here. She asked him, how do parents "raise their kids to not bully, to not name-call, to not tease, not taunt ... when the frontrunner for the Republican nomination does all of those things?" Trump's response was exactly what you'd expect, it was the response of, ironically, a child: he started it. He called himself a "counterpuncher" and said, "I respond pretty strongly. But in just about all cases, I've been responding to what they did to me." Not only does this have the benefit of being utter nonsense, it speaks volumes about Trump's unwillingness to ever take responsibility for his actions. At a young age we teach kids that they have to own up to their mistakes and that two wrongs don't make a right -- not that anyone has genuinely wronged Trump and the persecution isn't solely in his head and under his thin skin -- but Trump never seems to have learned this lesson.
That's exactly the thing, though: At the very least Donald Trump, during his formative years, could always look to the highest office in the world for examples of how he should behave and the lessons he should learn. When someone told him he could one day be president, they were imagining someone in the vein of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy. But Trump was always satisfied to be nothing more than Trump: a bully, a vainglorious egomaniac, a liar. And all that he ever was and became might now be the example our children follow, even if he doesn't make it all the way to the White House. That's nothing less than tragic.