Inauguration Day in America might be the beginning of something great.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
There will be a parade on Inauguration Day. There will be speeches. There will be pomp and fancy-dress balls. On the surface, it will look like a celebration, just like past examples of the ritual we repeat every four years with the swearing-in of our presidents.
The parade will snake down the same stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, as it always does. Flags will still flutter. Long black limousines will be guarded by the same breed of brave men and women in and out of uniform.
But do not view Inauguration Day 2017 as just the latest chapter of the stately pageant of democracy. Because it is a darker sort of ceremony. The procession will be more like a cortege — and the vast majority of Americans watching it will not be celebrating but mourning for lost values and shattered standards. The question for all of us is whether we can make it into something more than that.
Traditionally, we stand and salute our new presidents, regardless of party, out of respect for our system. We celebrate the peaceful transition of power because of what it says about our nation and our history. But while our reflexes and respect for tradition suggest we should do the same again this year, reflection reminds us that there are deeper and more important American values than simply following venerable customs.
Of course, we must respect our laws. But we have an obligation to withhold our respect for those who do not themselves respect them. We must and should uphold our constitutional traditions with pride, but the same reverence that motivates us requires that we act in accordance with the values that led to the creation and adoption of that document, to its spirit as well as the letter.
It is a greater American tradition than all the parades and ceremonies Washington can muster to stand up to the abuse of power, to demand that no individual is above the law, to fight for the fundamental idea that all of us are created equal and share the same rights — that our leaders must place their allegiance to this country and its people above their allegiance to any others or their own self-interests.
It is these reasons that will make this Inauguration Day unlike any other in our history. It is these reasons that the truly patriotic among us will look away from the falseness, the bright lights, and the bad country singing of the ceremonies ushering Donald Trump into America’s highest office. Instead, we must reflect on what we can do to stop him from damaging our country any more than he already has. Or, if we truly dare, to ask ourselves how we can use this moment to trigger changes that might better our union and place in the world.
This is not about politics. It is about our shared interests as a nation. It is not about one man but about the traditions of a country and the future it offers to its children, grandchildren, and those around the world who look to it for leadership.
We must treat this day differently because of who he is and who he is not, because of what he stands for and where he will leave us when he is gone. We must ask why we have come to this moment, and then, above all, we must ask how we can restore our country’s path to one more consistent with the values of our forefathers and the responsibilities we have to our descendants.
A few days ago, I was walking a block away from my home in Alexandria, Virginia. There, at 201 North Fairfax St., at what once was Wise’s Tavern is a small bronze plaque. It reads: “Here on April 16th 1789 George Washington was for the first time publicly addressed as president of the United States.” The tavern was Washington’s first stop on his trip from Mount Vernon to New York City to take the oath of office as president. I stopped to contemplate the moment and the man. Washington’s character made the America we know possible to a remarkable degree. Offered the title of king, he declined it, noting that was not what we had fought for. When his term of office ended, he peacefully returned to his farm on the banks of the Potomac. He surrounded himself with a cabinet of great men, managed their rivalries, and remained above reproach — although American politics has never been a sport for the squeamish. He and his personal choices helped create the nation, establish our high standards, and set our course.
Soon Donald Trump will assume the office that Washington held. I literally shivered as I contemplated it. Washington. Jefferson. Lincoln. Trump. What have you done, America?
The elevation of this man is a manifestation of the decline of the nation. In the bitterest of ironies, Trump campaigned to make the world’s greatest nation — at the apogee of its powers — great again, and then, simply by winning, he diminished us. He ran on a campaign of division, hate, disrespect, contempt for those who contributed to the country’s growth and security, and ignorance. He appealed to the basest instincts of the American people, lied to them serially and egregiously, promoted their enemies, attacked the country’s best values, and won just enough votes in just enough places to eke out the right to claim the country’s highest office.
In the months since his victory, he has demonstrated his pettiness and his continuing support for our enemies, flaunted the law and fundamental ethical standards, elevated his family as few of his predecessors have before him, and set himself up to profit from the presidency.
By now, this litany is well-known. Indeed, one of the dangers we face is that the situation is so extensive and extravagantly bad that we don’t know where to direct our outrage or our efforts to contain the damage he might do. Is it the fact that not only did Russia actively intervene in the election on his behalf but that he encouraged it? The fact that it’s very likely members of his team colluded with the Russians? The fact that his only consistent policy stance has been outspoken admiration and support for Vladimir Putin, a man dedicated to undermining American leadership and the international system we have worked since 1945 to build? Is it his disdain for ethics laws? Is it the abuses and ethical lapses of those he would appoint to high office? Or the stunning inexperience of some of them? Is it his desire to place his family in a position of both great power and to profit from his actions as president? Is it his words and actions suggesting a contempt for a free press? Is it his attacks on the intelligence community and the military heroes who have so ably defended America? Is it that he came into office riding a wave of racism he never truly disavowed? Is it his proven misogyny? His dubious business dealings and values? Is it that those around him show contempt for the rights of Americans through their desire to discriminate against people on the basis of their religious beliefs? Is it his reckless and possibly illegal decision to practice foreign policy while another president was still in office? Is it his decision to, without wise counsel, overturn or ignore decades of foreign-policy wisdom and policies? His disregard for treaties and alliances founded in international law? His disdain for reading and gaining knowledge? Or is it his sense that he is taking on a part-time job?
Each of these alone should be enough to disqualify Trump, yet they will not stop him from being invested with the awesome powers of the American presidency. Official Washington, the Republican Party, is largely complicit in this. They see him, as Putin does, as his kids do, as advancing their interests. They think, “Ah, with him we’ll undo Obamacare or get that tax cut,” and see that as a sufficient benefit to undertake the risks of a Trump presidency. It is a dangerous calculation.
We could despair. Indeed, we cannot help but despair. But we can and must do more than that. If we love our country and we truly admire the Washingtons and the Jeffersons and the Hamiltons and the Lincolns, we must find something good in this day. We must make it a day to celebrate in each of us a rekindling of the founders’ spirits that instilled in them a willingness to stand up to power, to demand that government in America be as good as the people of America.
That will require work. It will require fostering efforts to block what Trump seeks to do and who he seeks to appoint if we see them as dangerous. If the members of Congress will not do this — and we must let them know that we wish them to — then we must get state and local leaders to do it. It will require assisting the groups Trump seeks to target. It will require sending a message to the world that America is not abandoning its values nor will it abandon its allies. It will require not just journalists but everyone to demand the truth, fight for the truth, dig for the truth, and demand that the truth has consequences. It will require waking up each day and saying, “I have seen the dangers of apathy or doing too little. I understand that maintaining a democracy and maintaining a country that would lead the world requires vigilance and engagement and action.”
What if people look at the Trump inaugural and listen for the words that were offered by our forefathers, see in the monuments and government offices by which the parade passes the ideals that led to their erection? We might then see Inauguration Day 2017 as a turning point, but one dictated by the American people — not by the man who came into office because too few thought to vote or seriously considered the issues at stake.
When Donald Trump takes the oath of office, it will mean a new beginning for a new America. What you see when you watch the inauguration and what it stirs in you will determine just what kind of a beginning that is and what kind of America will emerge in the days and months and years to follow.
Photo Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images