Among the defects that made Donald Trump unfit for the presidency, two are paramount: His constant debasement of truth and his boorish manners.
As the unflattering gossip accumulates, crowned by the inevitable Bob Woodward special, a memory springs to mind. After the 1981 shooting of Ronald Reagan, it occurred to many presidential sages that a future victim of such a crime might be irrecoverably injured. Other varieties of unfitness could be imagined or recalled — the undisclosed cardiological frailty of FDR in 1944 or, earlier, Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 stroke that made his inexperienced and unelected wife the de facto president.
With such dire precedents and possibilities in mind, Arthur Link, the definitive Wilson authority, organized a conference on the 25th Amendment. One of the physicians in attendance some 20 years ago was a West Coast academic who had written a book on the Reagan shooting. He and his colleagues were worried by the unofficial interim regime that filled in while Reagan recovered and thought it would be a dandy idea to establish a panel of five medical authorities who would examine sitting presidents yearly and issue an official report on their physical and mental fitness.
Observing the notion with a jaundiced eye, Lloyd Cutler, who served as White House counsel for both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, offered a withering corrective: “I can’t imagine anything more alarming than a 3-2 vote that the president is sane.”
Donald Trump’s bizarre reign of almost two years brings the unresolved problem back to public attention. Note, for instance, the second major defect noted above — his chronic discourtesy. Trump seems to find it amusing to dwell on the dress and speech of subordinates — Gen. McMaster’s off-the-rack suits, for instance, or Attorney General Sessions’ Alabama drawl.
The White House gossip may not be reliable and may or may not signal mental pathology. But the common denominator is a monstrous egotism and chronic bad manners. It seems not to occur to Trump that McMaster, one of several discarded National Security advisers, as a lifelong public servant may not be able to afford thousand-dollar suits, or that Deep South drawls don’t necessarily signal dimwittedness.
After all, Trump in his ultimate insulting mode launched his march to the White House as the chief “birther,” questioning his predecessor’s eligibility for the office. Discourtesy can hardly go further.
The mention of manners may bring to mind the innocent territory covered by the wit of Miss Manners, the columnist Judith Martin. But manners have a larger and more serious dimension, as a gem from Edmund Burke, the 18th century English statesman, suggests. Burke was a sympathizer with the rebellious American colonies and a fervent critic of the bloodthirsty violence of the later French Revolution. As in his Letters on a Regicide Peace:
“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law teaches us but here and there and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give the whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality they aid morals, they supply them or they totally destroy them.”
Burke’s searching analysis of why manners matter is telling — why “manners maketh the man” and remain essential to sound statecraft. Trump has alienated good friends while embracing a thug like Putin. There are no precedents for this in our history — not Jackson’s defiance of the courts or Lincoln’s frontier humor, nothing remotely matching Trump’s constantly trashy behavior. It is embarrassing to use such an adjective of a president, but Trump has earned it.