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Don’t look to the president for moral leadership

President Trump Addresses The Nation After Yesterday's School Shooting In Florida That Killed 17 Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Trump’s reaction to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has drawn heavy criticism.

His initial round of tweets, reminding the country that the Florida shooter had been known to display “bad and erratic behavior,” and that such behavior should be “reported to the authorities” were not well-received. Critics called the response “victim-blaming.” Survivors of the shooting were neither comforted nor inspired.

Of course, we live in a time of partisan polarization, and it’s easy to suggest that there are many Americans who are unlikely to respond positively to any message from President Trump. That’s probably true. But none other than liberal snowflake Ari Fleischer — press secretary to George W. Bush — offered a broader indictment: “Some of the biggest errors Pres. Trump has made are what he did NOT say. He did not immediately condemn the KKK after Charlottesville. He did not immediately condemn domestic violence or offer sympathy for Rob Porter’s ex-wives. He should speak today about the school shooting.” Trump did address the incident in a speech on Thursday.

After Thursday’s speech, the criticism focused on the fact that Trump had failed to mention gun control as a policy area. But his rhetorical failure, as Fleischer suggested, isn’t just about the country’s impasse on this particular issue. Rather, it’s the absence of moral context altogether. Analyses of past moments suggest that though it might not be terribly rational, democracy might require that our leaders tell us why tragic events aren’t just bad, but unreflective of who we are as a nation. And we’re just not getting that from Trump.

Anti-Trump Republican Rick Wilson tweeted on Sunday that Trump isn’t a president but a “moral stress test.” His speech on Thursday and his visit to Florida over the weekend appeared to impress very few people. At the time of this writing, the president’s response appears to have culminated in a series of tweets chastising the FBI for not pursuing reports about the Florida shooter and linking the FBI’s failure to its Russia investigation.

I’ve written before about how Trump’s … minimalist approach to moral leadership is more typical of a 19th-century president. Lots of other analysts have suggested that Trump is weak in his position. I’ve argued that he has some of the defining characteristics of a “disjunctive” leader, who comes to power as the dominant party’s relevance and cohesion decline.

Other presidents in this situation found themselves unable to address crises like the approach of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the economic and international challenges of the late 1970s. Trump’s neglect or rejection of key democratic elements — anti-racism, legitimate opposition, accountability — have made a crisis all their own. In other words, what’s going on now goes beyond the inertia and stagnation of the past. As in most things, Trump’s presidency reflects a destabilizing mix of standard politics and norm violations.

But the broader crisis surrounding American identity, national values, and gun violence predates Trump. In 2015, I suggested that President Obama’s speeches about gun violence earned points for authentic emotion but fell short of redefining the issue in ways that might alter the terms of debate and link it to broader principles.

We might think that after a horrific and violent incident, especially one in a school, no reframing should be needed. No new theory of government, no delicate balance between freedom and obligation. But that is obviously not the case. It’s easy to think, in retrospect, that ending slavery and taking strong measures to end the Great Depression should have been obvious as well. The politics of those moments belies that impression.

Historically minded political scientists have written about the cyclical nature of national morality and renewal. Synthesizing the views of several scholars at the time, Andrew Busch argues of the late 1970s:

A fundamental change in the nature and ends in American government had taken place, without serious reference to the first principles of American politics. The theory of the Constitution had been changed, the traditional understanding supplanted by a new version not through amendment but through practical understanding and judicial action.

This state of affairs was characterized by an “incrementalism” in policy discussions, motivated by technocratic problem-solving rather than larger debates about national character and purpose. A crucial element of Ronald Reagan’s political success, the piece argues, was his ability to offer an ideological alternative to the status quo and to reinvigorate debates about national character and moral obligation.

Although the issues were quite different, Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis describe a similar kind of “civic death” in Abraham Lincoln’s critiques of the Jacksonian era. They write:

Lincoln’s opposition to Jacksonian democracy was born not of fear of revolutionary change but of fear of a political life so pedestrian that it left no room for exalted leadership. In hitching constitutional government to mass democracy, the Jacksonians championed local self-government and a steady advance of material conditions that might sacrifice political virtue for the sake of provincial liberties and social tranquility.

Instead of technocratic solutions coming from an expanded federal government, as in the 1970s, the problem was that politics had become localized and decentralized — allowing people to sidestep the big questions about national values and identity. (Some of what Lincoln identified here are the political forces that made the 19th century so limited.)

There are a few things that are common across these two accounts of political stagnation and renewal. First, there’s the suggestion that American democracy requires something beyond just voting. That something is lost when people retreat from public life, neglecting the hard questions of shared national values and obligations to each other. The parallels across very different times and contexts suggests that this happen periodically in American politics. Finally, it’s implied that presidents are in a unique position to address this problem through language and policy.

Does changing the status quo really require moral leadership from the president? There are some signs that politics in 2018, beyond the presidency, are anything but stagnant and civically subdued. And it’s hard to say that the 2016 presidential election didn’t offer the opportunity to debate about American national values and identity — although the electorate’s distaste toward both candidates suggests that perhaps no one was offering a truly compelling answer.

Civic renewal rarely begins with the president. Instead, it comes from social and political movements committed to distinct goals and moral visions. These groups exert political pressure that pushes presidents to take public stances. Presidents are positioned to tell the country what this means. But there’s nothing that requires them to do this.

Presidential leadership has been a nationalizing force because no other official is chosen by the whole country, and few have the same national platform. But it’s not 1863 anymore, or 1933 or even 1979. Gaining access to a national audience is easier than it once was, and so is building a national network of citizens who care about the same things.

And while the country struggles with racism, inequality, and public health, and hits impasse after impasse on gun policy and immigration despite national majorities on at least a few questions, it seems unlikely that Trump will offer such guidance, interpretation, or reanimation of longstanding national values. The pattern of history has been that after a period of stagnation, the next president takes up this role. The question of the moment is whether we need the president to do that at all.