What respect -- if any -- is due Donald Trump?
I ask that because, ever since his State of the Union speech, I've been wondering if congressional Democrats were out of line when dozens of them refused to stand for the president as he entered the chamber. My Washington Post colleague, the enviably talented Dana Milbank, took the Democrats to task for their behavior. He said the office of the presidency, if not the man, deserves our respect.
I respectfully disagree. In the first place, I am unable to separate the man from the office. Trump certainly hasn't. He has shown no respect for the presidency, not a nod of homage to the aura of his predecessors, some of whom he must have heard about. He has used foul language in describing certain emerging nations, wakes in the morning engorged with brattiness, and tweets denunciations of almost anyone. In an instant abdication of all dignity, Trump began his presidency with a squalid visit to CIA headquarters, where he stood before a memorial for the fallen ranting about the size of his inaugural's crowd. It was an epic act of civic sacrilege.
Trump is frequently dismissive of his own aides. This, though, is their own affair. They are men and women who seemingly lack pride or, in an act of self-abnegation not seen since Henry II submitted to flagellation for the murder of Thomas a Becket, choose to suffer for their own foolish actions. They hitched their wagons to a star, but he was really a one-man black hole who swallows truth. Only lies peek out -- white lies, black lies -- a cosmos of deceit. His aides are a tawdry group, high on their own ego, low on their own self-esteem.
In assessing what respect Trump is owed, it is not the man I consider but his victims. All presidents have victims, of course. The lives of countless people, both here and abroad, were ruined or ended by George W. Bush's Iraq War. The issue with Trump, however, is not over policy. It is about empathy. Bush himself was wrong about so much, but he is a courteous man who treated everyone with dignity. That is not the case with Trump. With enemies or mere critics, he picks at their scabs.
This, in fact, is Trump's true talent, honed during his years as the host of "The Apprentice." At a glance, he sizes up an opponent. "Crazy Bernie, "Crooked Hillary," "Little Marco," "Lyin' Ted," "Low-energy Jeb," "Pocahontas" and now "Mister Magoo" for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. These are not mere nicknames; they are stinging tags that validate what the public is beginning to think -- half-realized thoughts that Trump cements into judgments.
The politicians, however, can take care of themselves. It is Trump's other victims that I have in mind when I consider if the man deserves any show of respect. Should I stand for a president who has called Mexican immigrants criminals? If I do, does it show respect for some abstraction called the office of the president or a lack of respect for the actuality of the Mexican people?
Similarly, do we ignore how Trump mocked the physical disability of a New York Times reporter or attacked Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan? What about the Charlottesville protesters who Trump equated to neo-Nazis? I envision all these people feeling abandoned when Trump is cheered.
Trump himself is largely immune to criticism. Not showing him respect -- as opposed to being disrespectful -- is not going to change his behavior or prompt him to show remorse. But, as opposed to him, his aides are stalked by their former selves.
Whenever they accompany Trump anywhere, they should feel the contempt they have diligently earned by putting themselves at the service of a man who will sooner or later reward their stupidity with disdain. These are people who, in many cases, knew Trump was hugely unsuited for the presidency but let their demented hatred of Hillary Clinton and their personal greed blind them to the consequences. When they accompany Trump, they should feel the contempt Trump himself feels for people he's bought. They are bimbos in Brooks Brothers suits.
There will be a presidency after Trump. With any luck, the next president will restore the dignity of the office, not merely with appropriate ceremony, but by acknowledging the honor and obligation of precedence. But until that happens, Trump gives us no choice. At the next state of the union speech, I'd like to see even more members rise to the occasion -- by keeping their seats.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
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