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Dan Vallone: Trump and the black hole of leadership

  • President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Thursday. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 3/31/2018 12:14:56 AM

Even for a presidency that routinely shatters democratic and ethical norms, we have crossed into new territory. Having cowed, removed or otherwise rendered powerless anyone who stood up to him (save a few lonely voices such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley), President Donald Trump is now completely unrestrained.

Freed of those who would impose upon him the obligations of his office, President Trump is unabashedly showing us there are no boundaries he will not cross if he believes doing so will make him – not the country – appear like the winner. The extent to which he is placing personal interests over public duty would strain credulity were we not routinely confronted with undeniable evidence.

In this way President Trump represents not just the absence of leadership, a phenomenon which we have dealt with before under presidents from both political parties, but the active erosion of our capacity for leadership. He is the anti-leader, the black hole of leadership – raw ego devoid of any sense of civic duty or selfless service, consuming everything in his orbit in a relentless pursuit of self-aggrandizement.

This is a hard realization. We are not as cynical a people as media commentary makes us out to be. Our character is much more accurately represented by a scene I used to see daily on my walk to work.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., my route took me past the Capitol. Nearly every morning, a school bus would pull up to the Capitol’s steps and middle school students would rush out to take pictures, staring in awe at a building so invested with our history, values and aspirations. They were a constant reminder of the idealism foundational to our ethos.

So what do we do now to deliver upon that idealism? How do we make sense of a moment when we cannot look to the president for leadership?

We can start by building consensus around President Trump’s leadership failures. We can lay the groundwork now to ensure we will not tolerate such behavior in any future candidate running for office, irrespective of political affiliation. And it is not hard to catalogue all the ways President Trump shows us what leadership is not.

Leadership is not congratulating Vladimir Putin, a despot guilty of orchestrating an attack on our country, on winning a rigged election.

Leadership is not disassembling when the United Kingdom – one of our closest allies and a country that led NATO in invoking Article 5 (an attack against any member is an attack against the alliance) in the aftermath of 9/11 – calls out Russia for launching a chemical weapons attack.

Leadership is not categorically dismissing entire nations – and the people who constitute said nations – as “s---hole” countries.

Leadership is not embracing militaristic thugs, such President Duterte of the Philippines, who brag about mass killings and hurl racist insults at Americans.

Leadership is not denying the opportunity to serve our country in uniform to qualified transgender individuals who are ready and willing to put their lives on the line for our safety.

And leadership is not relentlessly attacking essential democratic institutions – a free press and independent judiciary – which have long sustained our liberty and prosperity.

These are not violations of a Democratic or Republican leadership ideal. Such behavior constitutes a failure of the most basic expectations against which we hold all our leaders and an insult to the ideals evidenced in the faces those students seeing our Capitol for the first time.

At the very minimum, we expect our leaders to stand up for democracy as a system that empowers individuals through free and fair elections; to stand by our democratic allies against common adversaries; and to stand with those who aspire for the rights and freedoms we hold dear.

Such leadership was demonstrated, however imperfectly, by all of the most recent presidents. And still today, we see these ideals advanced by elected officials from across the political spectrum and by civil servants, members of the military and national security agencies, and select political appointees, from the current administration. But there is a void at the top.

There are rough times ahead – black holes are so powerful that even light cannot escape their pull. Fortunately politics is not subject to the laws of physics and our democracy presents the potential for a new trajectory with every election.

(Dan Vallone is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. He lives in Concord. Views expressed are his own.)

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