OPINION — When President Donald Trump, at the United Nations this week, boasted that “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” it was familiar rhetoric to anyone who has paid even passing attention to his rallies before friendly crowds. But when the audience consisting of world leaders gathered in New York, the enthusiasm was absent.
Later, when asked about it, Trump said “that was meant to get some laughter, but it was great” — trying, I suppose, to brush it off as a joke that landed just the way he intended. Any American, whether a Trump fan or not, probably cringed a bit at the whole episode. This is what the world thinks of our country’s leader and by extension, us — a braggart to be laughed at.
Trump’s “America First” message seemed more like “America Alone.” And even when you’re the biggest kid on the block, that is a tough place to stand.
America’s post-World War II alliances have actually made the country stronger. And when we aid others in need as well as those who can reciprocate, it is not just a moral choice; the action also offers stability and strength that might prevent global conflagrations that would certainly affect the U.S., like it or not.
The American spirit has meant pride — in our economy, military and resources, of course, but also in our all-too-human citizens who many times have found a circuitous and incomplete way toward justice for all, and have had enough humility to know that we have a ways to go. It made the United States an idea, a beacon, recognized from every corner of the globe. Now that beacon is dimmed.
Trump says America has gained control over its decisions and destiny, as though the country were a weak follower until he became president.
What have we lost? And what will happen if a crisis demands unity?
Watch: Highlights of Trump's UN Address in 2 Minutes
Dignified no more
Those are questions that apply not just globally, when emergencies can be met only with the support and trust of allies, but inside our borders as well.
Most presidents at least attempt to reach out to the citizens who voted for their opponent or did not vote at all. That is not the case for Trump, or for many of the country’s other leaders, with guilt enough to go around the ideological spectrum.
As the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court makes clear, the grand vision of a united country has shrunk. Now it’s about playing to your party, and your base within that party.
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has said, “I’m confident we’re going to win.” Who are the “we,” and what does “winning” mean when a confirmation vote is promised before Thursday’s testimony from Kavanaugh and Ford has even begun? The reputation of the Senate — supposedly the contentious but sensible club that keeps its head even if House members lose theirs — is certainly gone.
In looking to the testimony of Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, everyone seems to be playing a part. Actually, Republican members of the Judiciary Committee are outsourcing their roles, hiring a female Republican sex crimes prosecutor to ask what one assumes will be the tough questions. Maybe they want to change the optics of the insulting insinuations Anita Hill was subjected to by an all-male panel in 1991.
One of the women who came to Washington to support Hill’s story with her own of harassment by Clarence Thomas isn’t fooled. She sees similarities in the way the Judiciary Committee is handling the confirmation today, though it is obvious, she said, that “the cases are not the same.”
Angela Wright, not called in 1991 by then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, said, “We haven’t come far at all; 27 years later and we’re still right here.” Sens. Charles Grassley and Orrin G. Hatch are “ready to pounce on this woman, just like they did Anita Hill,” with the same result — “win at any and all costs.”
But when the “man in the White House” has bragged on tape about his own sexual exploits, she said, “Why would we expect anything different from the members of the party who support him so blindly?”
President in absentia
Not even his important appearance as a world leader at the U.N. could stop Trump from unloading on the women who have accused Kavanaugh, or from being preoccupied with plans to meet with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, stringing him and his job prospects along with a real-life version of his small screen “The Apprentice.”
That’s where we are, with a president who doesn’t seem much interested in the duties, real and ceremonial, of a true head of state. At the U.N., French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to be auditioning for the job of “leader of the free world.”
Trump has established a pattern of retreating to one of his many properties for a game of golf or to catch up on his Twitter insults, missing or being disinvited from the bipartisan tableaux at the funerals of former first lady Barbara Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He has not taken his place at the presidential box at the Kennedy Center Honors, for fear the honorees would find better things to do that night.
They may seem like small omissions. But once and awhile, Americans like to imagine their presidents as bipartisan keepers of the flame. It bolsters a leader’s authority when the inevitable tragedy strikes and unity with those with whom we share little else but our American-ness becomes essential.
Remember President George W. Bush in the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11, whether or not you agree with the foreign policy actions that followed, or President Barack Obama’s tributes to the lives lost in Tucson, Arizona, that fateful day in 2011 when Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and so many others were shot. At a memorial to them, Obama’s healing words honored 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, born on 9/11, who cared enough about being a knowledgeable citizen that she attended that meeting with a member of Congress.
Those are moments that demand partisanship be set aside.
For a time, during a visit to North Carolina and South Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Donald Trump did indeed look “presidential,” saying “to the families who have lost loved ones, America grieves with you and our hearts break for you.” But he could not help using the time to relitigate the death toll and criticism of his response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
When candidate Trump became president of the United States of America, his supporters insisted the office would elevate him, and his doubters hoped that was true. Instead, Trump’s behavior has lowered the stature and standing of the country, something the world reminded us of this week, even as Americans, like the president, had become distracted about what that could mean for us all.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.