Honor, rolled

“What private griefs they have, alas, I know not, that made them do it. They are wise and honorable, and will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.”

In what is probably the first documented campaign speech of all time, Marc Anthony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar, as imagined by William Shakespeare, first describes Caesar’s assassins as “honorable” with insincere respect, and later growls the same word with outright contempt.

This represents high-quality snark, written centuries ago. The quote above, for example, means, “Maybe they have their own reasons for being douches. I don’t get it. Let’s find out. Because they’re ...wise… and ...honorable.” Here Shakespeare’s quill pen drips with sarcasm.

A student of the musical Hamilton might notice that the honor-defined culture in which our country's founders lived often resulted in dangerous and idiotic duels. Their notion of honorable behavior was nothing like our more modern view of justice that entrusts our legal system to handle disputes, flawed as it is. Furthermore, we will never condone those who owned slaves while they thought themselves moral.

While we critically examine the morality of our country's founders today, there is one thing that has become apparent as we live with the Constitution in the 21st century — the men who wrote our guiding principles assumed that the people that we entrusted to lead our country had a sense of honor and that the framework supporting our government would not allow someone without a sense of honor to disrupt it.

What do you do when a country founded on honor is chaired by someone who has no conception of honor and isn’t ashamed of that at all?

It isn’t that we didn’t know. During the primaries for the 2016 election, we watched Donald Trump belittle his debate opponents with schoolyard nicknames and nasty tweets. His opponents folded one by one, as if it were orchestrated in a badly-written play. The allegations against Ted Cruz (and his non-political wife) were slanderous and personal. Unexpectedly, many of the victims of these attacks are now among his defenders.

During the presidential campaign, Trump belittled the physically disabled, retweeted anti-Semitic memes promoted by far-right accounts, trashed a Gold Star family, and owned up to a vile interview about delightedly assaulting women, never apologizing or changing his indefensible behavior. He criticized the judge overseeing a case involving Trump’s fraudulent university, asserting that the judge’s judicial independence would be compromised because of his Mexican-American heritage. Trump’s fans cheered his “honesty” as they laughed off his many lies. And yet somehow Donald Trump eked out a victory.

It has felt like the Trump Administration has lasted forever, but many still remember the on-air analysis constantly predicting a “pivot” in Trump’s behavior. His handlers were thwarted every time they thought they’d contained his basic instincts. This was finally so laughable that now there’s a meme whenever Trump does something like, well, tell people to vote first by mail and later to commit fraud by voting in person. You’ll see the tittering on Twitter, “This is the day Trump finally became President.” We all know that he will never become president.

In office, Trump retained his lifelong appetites, and now he has power that he never had before. He can break the law, and then he can fire the enforcers. Inspectors General, judges (replaced by those considered unqualified by law groups and only appointed for their loyalty to Trump), and entire offices like the Federal Election Commission are neutered. He's banned disfavored journalists from White House briefings. All of these members of the loyal opposition were once left in place, perhaps without love, but with respect, by former presidents.

Richard Nixon was the only U.S. president in history ever to resign, and he did so because his conduct resulted in three articles of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee. The worst day of Nixon’s behavior was called the Saturday Night Massacre. He wanted his Attorney General to fire the Special Prosecutor investigating Watergate. The sitting Attorney General wouldn’t do it and resigned. His replacement wouldn’t do it and resigned. The third Attorney General relented, a move that was remembered when his later nomination to the US Supreme Court was rejected. Nixon was finally implicated in the Watergate scandal, and he resigned. In the end, maybe he knew that his needs were subservient to honor. (He also knew that the Senate would remove him from office, with only 15 potential supporters.) That particular Senate only had 56 Democrats, but even the members of Nixon’s party understood the meaning of honor.

Trump has dishonored the office from the moment he was elected. There are three driving forces, likely related, that have guided nearly all of his actions. One is Russia. Another is acquiring money for himself or for his associates that can provide him with more money. Last, he loathes anything that might reveal his associations with Russia or his appropriation of money he isn’t supposed to have. That’s it.

Let’s decode Trump’s “governance”: 

Russia: Whether the Trump campaign cooperated with Russian intelligence is still vigorously debated, but there is no doubt that the Russians tried, and are still trying, to destroy our democracy, and that their efforts are embraced by Trump and his close associates. Why did we learn from the Kremlin, not our own press, that Russians were entertained — alone with Trump and their own entourage — in the Oval Office? Why has our press, constantly unraveling Trump’s cover stories about Russia, earned the Stalinist moniker “enemy of the people” as a constant refrain on the Trump Twitter feed? Why can’t Trump stand up to Russia on anything, even the poisoning of a political opponent? Russia knows a lot about Trump, and they know that the press is only your enemy when you have something very big that you don’t want anyone to know. To channel Carrie Bradshaw — “I couldn't help but wonder, with everything damaging we already know about Trump and Russia, what is still so terrible that Trump has to go to such lengths to hide it?”

Money: Trump proclaimed that he wouldn’t take his salary as president, but we the people have funded his family’s lavish travels (they do not actually work for the White House) and of course, Trump’s golf (at his own resorts), which alone has cost us about $141,000,000. He routinely tries to broker federal “deals” in such a way that he or those close to him will benefit financially. Or he’ll launder federal money into his re-election campaign or launder money from his campaign coffers into his personal account. Trump placed unqualified donors and supporters into Cabinet and executive positions in departments such as Education, Housing and Urban Development, and the United States Postal Service. It’s common in normal times for political allies to become ambassadors to low-risk countries, but not for positions with operational responsibilities. On the fringes of the corruption, there’s a law that prevents those around the president from campaigning at official events because it redirects taxpayer funds for personal gain. Violations of this law were once enforced, but they pale in the pile of more serious and more obvious crimes. 

Enforcement: The biggest lie of all, of course, is that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is a “hoax.” Cascading from that, there are dozens of actions that make no sense for an innocent man to take. Firing Inspectors General who are investigating paths that might lead to Trump’s misbehavior. Hiding and fighting financial disclosures that are routinely revealed by all other presidential candidates. Preventing career executive branch employees from testifying to Congress. Hiding or seizing the translator’s notes from private meetings with Vladimir Putin. If Trump has done nothing wrong, he certainly has consumed a lot of energy trying to frame himself.

Then there are the overt desecrations of democracy itself, with Trump trying to undermine our confidence in whether our votes will count, inserting delays into the voting process itself, threatening not to concede a loss, and asserting, always without any evidence, that the election will be “rigged”. These can’t be explained directly by Trump’s appetites for money, attention, or the approval of Russia. Maybe he knows that the office is the only barrier between himself and accountability for crimes that are still redacted or sealed. Maybe he just thinks that trashing our democracy is the surest path to reelection victory in the face of polls that even Russian disinformation might not overcome. If that’s the explanation, it’s truly shameless, and Trump has demonstrated time after time that he is incapable of shame. But it gets worse indeed.

In mid-2016, we watched candidate Trump dishonor our war dead with his defensive and selfish reaction to the Democratic convention speech given by Khizr and Ghazala Khan. The speech was directed at Trump’s constant, unconstitutional attempts to ban Muslims from entering the country. Coming from a Gold Star family, the speech was powerful, and Trump reacted with his now-familiar disdain for those who gave their lives to our country. Like all Trump horrors, this dominated a few news cycles and moved on. We’d already forgotten his quip that John McCain hadn’t really been a war hero, because, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

In a September 2020 article in The Atlantic, by editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, Trump is quoted as calling our active and fallen soldiers “suckers” and “losers”. It’s shocking, and tragic, and completely expected. We knew who he was in 2015 when he first ran; we knew in 2016 after his treatment of patriots like the Khan family, and enough people put that aside and cast their ballots for him anyway.

Our heroes in the military fight for us, are imprisoned for us, and die for us. They fight for our right to make vile statements about them, even if those statements are lies, even if those statements are declared from a podium. Even if those statements are coming from their Commander-in-Chief.

A recurring feature of Trump’s 2016 rallies, cheered by his audience, was a poem about a tenderhearted woman who saved a snake from freezing, appropriating a song (in rich irony) from a civil rights activist. In Trump’s version, the woman is America and the snake is a Muslim refugee. In the end, the snake bit the woman who cared for him.

“Oh, shut up, silly woman!’ said the reptile with a grin. ‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”

Yes, we did. We knew Trump was a snake, and we took him in anyway. Let’s get back to honoring our Constitution, our fellow Americans, and those who fight for our right to be whoever we are, whatever that is, even those of us who say vile things.

If you have asked for a mail-in ballot, your Election Day is the day it arrives. If you plan to vote early in-person, make sure you’re equipped with the right identification. Make sure you sign in all the right places. Get it right. If you can, track your ballot and make sure that it’s counted. 

Honor those who gave everything to protect your freedoms. Vote for Joe Biden and bring honor back to our leadership.