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MATTHEW BOOSE: Trump’s not so presidential. So what?
The death of George H.W. Bush has brought about much reflection on the American presidency and the current officeholder.
The left has predictably focused on the contrasts between Bush’s virtues and Trump’s vices to bash the current president. In doing this, the media has plugged a ready-made Trump-era narrative — that Trump is not “presidential” enough. The humble, well-mannered Bush is a convenient foil to Trump.
True, Trump has deviated further from presidential norms than his predecessors, but he also isn’t the first president to lack decorum or discretion at times. No doubt Obama cultivated a genteel persona, but in retrospect, he was a divisive, sometimes graceless figure. Clinton was no gentleman either.
The longed-for “presidential” demeanor is a vestige of a simpler time, one that had come and passed before Trump even took office.
This yearning for a “presidential” character may be why Bush is being remembered so fondly. Some of the more cutting commentary on Bush’s death has singled out his presidency as the last of a certain type. To The Atlantic‘s Peter Beinart, Bush was the last president widely seen as legitimate by most of the population, while the publication’s Franklin Foer wrote that Bush was the last president to come from the older “WASP” [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] ruling class that the country misses a little too much.
The New York Times’ Ross Douthat had a more controversial, interesting argument, that Americans actually miss the times when “old white men” were in charge because they ran the country well. Douthat points to a noblesse oblige that the new ruling class lacks. Despite their bigotry, he says, the WASPs were competent statesmen.
For all their differences, these takes recognize Bush as a transitional figure. Bush may have been the last president who commanded reasonably widespread belief that he was not just a man in a suit, but a figure worthy of reverence and trust.
Perhaps what Americans really miss is not WASPish competence, but the belief, justified or not, that they are being ruled well. The old ruling class from which Bush came at least created a persuasive perception that they were capable leaders who were guiding one nation under God. They commanded awe and reverence, and they spoke to Americans like fathers who cared for a republic given them to steward.
Bush’s failure to win a second term marked a transition from a more dignified and encompassing presidency to the more factional and scandal-ridden administrations of Clinton and beyond, as presidents shifted their focus from the nation to the world, turned their backs on the working class, involved the country in one misguided foreign war after another, and especially with Obama and Trump, embraced partisan pandering over national unity. These changes have made it harder for Americans to see the president as somebody who represents the interests of the nation as a whole.
More than a desire for competence and benevolence, a nostalgia for the “old white” presidents may reflect a desire for a now-lost cultural unity, defined by a firm national identity and a faith in virtuous leaders who were raised on the Bible and who spoke with a moral authority that seemed real because it connected with values shared by the whole nation.
To the left, this rosy nostalgia is racist. The awkward truth is that this cultural consensus was accompanied by a system of hierarchy that benefitted some over others. But the triumph of liberalism, as Douthat observes, led to the replacement of these older hierarchies with new ones that are no less exclusionary and no more virtuous — perhaps less so.
Unlike the old hierarchy, the new elites lack a sense of duty to their countrymen. They gleefully anticipate, and work to hasten, the disenfranchisement of the kind of reprobates who still believe in things like religion and marriage.
The erasure of old distinctions has been accompanied by a decline of public morality, decorum, and social norms that made the old elites respectable and their governance civil. If the WASPs philandered, at least they were discreet about it. Today’s elites are proudly polyamorous and as vulgar, if not more, than the people they control.
The masters of “woke capital,” their only obligations are to themselves and their appetites. The extent of their public service is to generate entertainment, keep consumer goods cheap, and signal superficial solidarity with minorities and the poor.
Perhaps Bush belonged to a system of privilege, but he served his country in war. What can today’s privilged aristocrats say for themselves?
Unlike the WASPs, America’s new elites can barely hide their self-interest and contempt for the masses. Would President Bush have called half the country “bitter clingers” or a “basket of deplorables”?
Granted, the WASPs may well have harbored supercilious or bigoted beliefs toward the very people they ruled. But unlike their successors, they did a good job of keeping such feelings private to make all Americans feel included within the nation, or at least significantly more than the 50 percent of more recent presidents.
A gradual degradation of America’s moral and civic culture has affected ruler and ruled alike, to the point where Americans decided they had enough fake, preening leadership and chose a president who was at least honest about his vulgarity. Trump’s manners reflect his accurate estimation that a sizable number of Americans don’t really care how the president behaves anymore.
Trump is the first president to stop pretending that he is above the people, and his supporters find this honesty enormously refreshing. At the same time, WASPish manners continue to define how many Americans still think a president should speak and act.
As the widespread reverence once commanded by presidents has diminished, style has become a more important feature of presidential legitimacy than substance. Obama is widely considered more “presidential” than his successor because he spoke with a WASPish eloquence that his admirers found impressive and his critics pompous. The WASPish modes and habits of the old class have become a set of mannerisms to be emulated or rejected, not a way of life — public service, privilege, and all.
Even if Douthat is wrong and the WASPs were bigots with superficial manners, they at least played the part of benevolent leaders well, and their rule has left a trace.
The triumph of style over substance eventually set the stage for the last, lingering traces of WASPish gentility to be blown to smithereens by Trump, the first president to consciously reject the aristocratic play-acting and “tell it like it is,” even going so far as to mock the stiff, eloquent, “presidential” demeanor at his rallies.
The yearning for Bush is nostalgia for a simpler time when, despite partisan differences, the nation could live under a single president in peace. Trump is not the first factional president, but he is its most factional. Like Obama, Trump is still unrecognized by giant swaths of the population. Outside of occasional gestures of goodwill to the other side, he is a truculent, one-sided leader.
In times of such division, many are looking to him to unify the country. Just as it has become harder to believe the president is morally superior, though, it has become difficult to believe that a president can still encompass the whole nation.
Trump’s vulgarity is an honest reflection of the state of the country after decades of decay, just as Bush’s death mirrors the end of an older ruling class that inspired reverence and trust, and which presided over a more cultivated and trustful public. A more genteel and moral regime has gone away, and with it the respectable leadership that the country is missing.
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