In the relatively short history of America, the country has had its share of leaders who have a reputation as cruel presidents. Andrew Jackson and his Indian Removal Act resulted in the tragic Trail of Tears in which 4,000 Native Americans perished, a true blight on the country’s history. Harry Truman ordered the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, resulting in thousands of deaths; as it turns out, this horrific action, while it did end the war, was probably unnecessary (amazing what history ultimately reveals). William McKinley was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge the growing AIDS epidemic and, consequently, in a too little/too late Ronnie-come-lately way, far too many people died. There are others, of course, but these stand out. It’s not a distinction most leaders would aspire to, of course, and these men did have moments of greatness during their time in office. Jackson was a war hero, a hero of the common folk, and a romantic who loved his wife profoundly. Truman supported the creation of the United Nations, advocated for national healthcare, initiated an aggressive civil rights program which he considered a moral priority, and conceived the Truman Doctrine. Reagan is credited with helping to bring an end to the Cold War.
So we’ve established that there have been presidents in our history that had at least some cruelty in them or did cruel deeds. So what, then, sets our 45th president apart from them? What makes him so unrelentingly detestable? I think it’s because he just as unrelentingly courts the disrespect and, yes, even hatred, of the majority of Americans. He works at it and has since before his inauguration. He has come to see himself as infallible and will not be questioned or second guessed by citizens, lawmakers, or members of the press. He will do what he will do, and everyone else’s opinion, no matter how well informed, is discounted and regarded as insulting (unless, of course, those opinions come from Fox News). There are people who make it easy to love them; Trump makes it easy to despise him. He does it gleefully with constant body language that signals that his word is law and he is not to be thwarted. And he naturally has set up an administration, from the least to the greatest, who almost universally follow him down the path to hell like rats following the Pied Piper. Unlike the presidents I mentioned earlier who had cabinets and advisors who challenged them, Trump has surrounded himself with yes-men and women who don’t dare question his decisions or actions on pain of being unemployed, hence the seemingly endless parade of Trumpian has-been’s who find themselves out of work, sometimes for trying to take the high road in an administration determined to take the low.
Thus far, Trump has exhibited the whole range of the worst behavior (bigotry, denial of aid to those who need it, apparent disregard for human life, etc) in his predecessors, but without any of their redeeming qualities. And he just keeps piling evil on evil. He is overtly racist and homophobic. He champions white supremacists and makes immigration policies that are beyond cruel. His latest, handed down through his attorney general, is to stop letting domestic and gang abuse victims into the US, a decision that could, as his policies have done before, result in needless deaths. And, of course, it will be impossible to forget that this administration separated hundreds of children from their parents to serve as a deterrent against attempts to enter the country. At least in Andrew Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans and in the cases of slave-owning presidents in the past, the climate and beliefs of their particular times can account, at least in part, for their actions, while not excusing them; not so in Trump’s case. He is actually taking a country that was going through the long, grueling process of becoming more racially tolerant and making significant inroads, and sent us spiraling backwards while rewinding progress, inspiring racial and ethnic hatred the likes of which has not been seen in a while. It manifests itself in violence, in the defacement of cemeteries, and in the boldness of sick individuals who now feel empowered to march in hate parades. Leaders of these movements have claimed that Trump sees things the way they do. His actions and words suggest that’s indisputably true. Purveyors of racial hatred supported him in the election because they know his views align with theirs.
He purposely disrespects and damages our environment, making decisions that will ultimately affect generations to come, including his own children and grandchildren. And he does it to appease his wealthy cronies who put money far higher on their list of priorities than protecting the planet. Unlike Truman, he advocates against healthcare for all, deaf to the pleas and stories of Americans who were either saved by the Affordable Care Act or need it to survive now and in the future.
His treatment of women is abominable and apparently always has been. Three times married, twice divorced, many times an adulterer and abuser, he seeks to move women backwards in time just as surely as he is pushing back race progress. And gay rights, particularly marriage rights, are on the line as well, rights that have been a long time coming but are now in the direct crosshairs of individuals in Trump’s camp with the power to render them null and void.
He, his cabinet picks, and his own children use America’s money as their own personal bank account, buying insanely expensive furnishings and more for their offices, traveling, and working business deals in foreign lands to feather their own nests (despite their pre-election promises to the contrary). His education secretary clearly must not like the children she is tasked with educating, as she attempts to screw them over and dismantle public education in favor of for-profit educators and institutions.
Yes, America has had cruel men in the presidency before Trump. But they were cruel in specific areas. Kennedy apparently had a parade of mistresses, but was a champion of civil rights, for example. Andrew Jackson was a bigot, as were other presidents who were unfortunate products of the times in which they lived, but all of them, down to the man, had at least a few redeeming qualities in other areas of their presidencies. Not so Donald Trump; he seems hell bent on inflicting cruelty in every facet of his job and even in his personal life: race relations, the environment, LGBTQ rights, those from other countries seeking refuge America has a long history of providing, equality and fair treatment of women, the sick and elderly among his own people, even in dealings with other nations, many of them our former friends and supporters. And unlike Andrew Jackson who loved his wife beyond all reason, Trump appears to be incapable of such feelings when it comes to his wives, including the current one.
Jackson, despite triumphs in his presidency, is noted today largely for the Trail of Tears. Truman is remembered largely for ordering the dropping of the first atomic bombs. Reagan, while still an almost mythic hero of the Republican Party, will always be tainted by his refusal to acknowledge and take action on the AIDS epidemic. But in years to come, when Trump’s name comes up, it will evoke such a huge and varied list of crimes against humanity and his country and even the world, that people will scratch their heads trying to come up with any redeeming qualities or acts of kindness and heroism. Any progress he may have made with North Korea (the jury is still out) will be overshadowed by the fact that he openly admires and courts dictators who participate in genocide and oppression, while alienating foreign leaders and former friends of our nation who govern humanely and well.
Trump is leaving a legacy comprised of a smorgasbord of evil deeds. That’s a hell of a way to be remembered in history. The scope of his cruelty is unprecedented. Americans will be experiencing a mass PTSD in post-Trump America. Let’s hope we can survive it and his stain on the world stage and get back to having qualified leaders who, while flawed, in some ways, at least attempt to govern with wisdom and compassion for the most part. It’s what we’ve had since our inception; it’s what we’ll never get from Trump; it’s what we need once more to move on as we should.
Other commentaries by Gail Barth:Snowflake Nation
Gospel of Trump
Dear Donald Trump and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens
Sing-Along with Donald Trump
What is Wrong with America...
Single Issue Voting