Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Dear Mr. President Trump, Your Honor, Sir

An old friend posted this on Facebook the other day.
As a general rule, (not necessarily 100% of the time), I will refer to the person holding the office of the Presidency as President or occasionally POTUS, out of respect for the office itself. I have a 'friend' on FB who, most of the time that I've seen refers to President Trump as... Cheetolini. Unfortunately, I currently am not advanced enough as a human being to not laugh at this every time I read it. I am working on it...
One thing that has become plainer than ever during the Trump presidency is just how situational such notions as "respect for the office itself" are: You must respect my president, but I don't have to respect your president, because he's Not My President!  My friend has been better than the average non-Republican on this, but I think he's still confused, and that confusion comes busting out in this post.

I don't get the whole idea of "respect for the office itself," first of all, partly because I don't think it inheres in the office.  The qualifications, powers, and responsibilities of the President are set forth mostly in Article 2 of the US Constitution, and while they are considerable, they don't seem to me to define a role that requires deference, reverence, or the other attitudes that so many people confuse with "respect," especially for "their" president as opposed to yours.  The American president isn't a monarch, he's an executive -- which is to say, a functionary, a bureaucrat, and who respects the office of bureaucrat?  As the anarchist Paul Goodman put it fifty years ago, "I regard the President as my public servant whom I pay, and berate him as a lousy employee."

The Constitution, far from elevating the Executive over the other government branches or the citizenry, provides for his removal in case of serious misconduct, which is enough by itself to show that the office, let alone the person holding the office, is neither sacred nor exempt from oversight and criticism.  John Adams reportedly wanted to style the president "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties," as did George Washington himself at first, but they didn't speak for all the founders, and it never quite caught on.  (The same goes for the Constitution.  I've had some disagreements with people who wanted to treat it as above criticism or change, which makes no sense for a document that contains provision for amending it.)  Why "the office itself" should be accorded respect more than any other office, from members of Congress to County Clerk to school bus driver, I don't understand.  I imagine many people, including perhaps my friend, would claim that all government offices deserve respect, but I don't think I believe them.

"Respect" is an ambiguous word.  I once saw an attempt to derive from its etymology the idea that it involves a relation between equals.  But the history of a word is not its meaning, and while it can still have that original (?) sense, "respect" in English quickly began to mean "treat with deferential regard or esteem" or a "feeling of esteem excited by actions or attributes of someone or something; courteous or considerate treatment due to personal worth or power."  That's the sense implied in usages like "respect your elders" or "respect the President."  Since hierarchies are not natural phenomena but social constructions, it's not surprising that defenders of hierarchies would guard jealously the perquisites of those in the upper levels.  In a nominally egalitarian society, I don't see that such deference is desirable or defensible.  But many Americans wish we still had a monarch.

Someone posted on Twitter the same day:

This person, probably all unawares, was describing Donald Trump.  Myself, I disagree that "we" "need" such a "leader," especially one who will tell us "what we should fight for."  Nothing I can see in the Constitution indicates that the President was supposed to be such a person.  We've had enough of such leaders, and enough people have died because of them.  More important, though, this conception of the Presidency is incompatible with a non-hierarchical, democratic society; it's a holdover from the Big-Man conception of the ruler as the head of the social body.  It's not surprising that many people still cling to it, but it needs to be left behind.

I don't believe that many people are all that interested in observing the distinction between the office and the office-holder.  When you refer to the office-holder as (say) POTUS, without his or her name, you're confusing the two, obliterating the distinction.  (That new abbreviations like FLOTUS also caught on indicate that "respect for the office itself" is not involved, since First Lady is not an office.)  In this blog I've generally referred to presidents by their last names more than by their titles to avoid that obfuscation.

Recently the same friend I quoted above linked to a post by one of his favorite online commentators, who declared angrily that he was not going to respect President Trump because Trump's supporters had not respected President Obama.  What this implies, though I don't think he realized it, is that he doesn't consider it obligatory or maybe even desirable to respect the current President.  I could go along with that, but I don't think that my friend or the pundit really meant it.  What the pundit meant was that he was going to take Republicans as his role model in talking about Trump.  Considering how very badly the Republicans behaved toward Obama, and to the Clintons before him, you might think he'd rather take the high road, but evidently he's content to wallow in the pig shit with them.  To each his own; knock yourselves out.

None of this is new in American politics, of course: lobbing feces (sometimes literally) at the opposition is Tradition.  One reason for parties and leaders, especially in a non-egalitarian and non-democratic system, is to personalize politics so that the voters will identify with their their team and its stars and leaders, concentrating not on issues (which are supposedly beyond our grasp and not our business) but on personalities. The most interesting thing for me about George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo were the quotations from Lincoln's contemporaries ranting about POTUS' vulgarity, nastiness, ugliness, etc.  They sounded like today's Democrats frothing about Donald Trump.  What partisans want for their politicians isn't "respect" but uncritical, slobbering adulation.  Maybe there is no way to have a nation in which politics isn't a spectator sport, but let's not pretend that it's anything else right now.  As the political philospher Michael Neumann wrote during the Bush administration,
Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt.
I agree completely, but this flies in the face of everything that most people hold dear.  It is vitally important for them to have someone they can beat or put in jail or drive from their homes, to insult freely and without limit.  Demanding respect for their own heroes is just the flip side of withholding it from the other guys' heroes.  It's a game, however seriously people take it, and they do take it very seriously.

That said, I don't condemn my friend for being amused by "Cheetolini," though I don't find that epithet funny myself.  He's better than most liberals on this (though with all due immodesty, it's partly because I've kept him honest).  I do condemn the many liberal Democrats who demanded total deference to Obama (or to the Clintons), but entertained themselves by mocking Bush, and now Trump.  But then I also condemn the equal and corresponding hypocrisy of right-wing Republicans.  Even as cynical as I am, I was surprised at quickly they flipped from deploring Trump's fans to talking and behaving exactly like them.  Both factions will, if pressed, whine "But they started it!"  That's not important.  Both started it, long ago; it's part of the game of American politics.  The question is who will end it.  But hardly anyone really wants to see it end, because obsessing over people is so much easier than attending to issues.  Indeed, most people can't tell the difference anyway: they believe that personal attacks are rational discussion, and vice versa.