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America, the diminished

What Trump has wrought.

Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

At the Washington Examiner, Byron York argues that those who fight Donald Trump on Donald Trump’s terms end up diminished. Trump sprays insults with abandon, mocking everything from his critics’ intelligence to their popularity to their ethics to their plastic surgery, but those who engage with the president of the United States on his own level make themselves look smaller and meaner, and they are never able to go as low for as long as Trump.

“Of course one could say that Trump is at fault,” York writes. Yes, one could. York doesn’t so much reject that possibility as rule it out as a category error. Unlike most people, whose behavior is bounded by shame and thus amenable to criticism, Trump is truly shameless, and thus criticizing his behavior is useless. “Trump is Trump,” York writes. “He does what he does.”

York has a point. Trump takes such glee in conflict, and cares so little for standards of decency or compassion, that his assailants often diminish themselves by betraying their own values out of desperation. But this isn’t just true of Trump’s assailants. It is true of all of us. To consistently engage with Trump is to be diminished by him. And we have all been diminished by his presidency.

We are diminished when our president lies, and even more so when we begin taking his habitual lying for granted. The New York Times published a comprehensive list of falsehoods Trump told since taking office and found it wasn’t until March that Trump went a full day without saying something flatly untrue. The absence of public dishonesty, for Trump, is usually driven by an absence of opportunity to be publicly dishonest. “On days without an untrue statement, he is often absent from Twitter, vacationing at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, or busy golfing,” the Times found.

We are diminished when our president uses cyberbullying as a communications strategy, spending his mornings picking childish fights on Twitter and coming up with insulting nicknames for his enemies. It is impossible to imagine the firestorm that would have followed Barack Obama or Bill Clinton mocking a television anchor’s plastic surgery. But in this White House, press officers justify the president’s insults by saying he “fights fire with fire.” The president is teaching our children that bullies win so long as they never, ever back down.

We are diminished when our president spends his time and energy — and thus the nation’s time and energy — on the wrong issues. At Axios, Mike Allen notes Trump has tweeted the words “opioid” or “opioids” just once — but “loser” 234 times, and “dumb” or “dummy” 222 times. Political capital is finite, and our future is harmed when it is squandered.

We are diminished when the president knows nothing about the issues he faces, and does not try to learn more. It is embarrassing that the president’s staffers have taken to writing his name as often as possible in briefing documents for fear that he will lose interest otherwise, that they fill his press clips with sycophantic praise in an effort to distract him from Twitter, that they fight to appear on Fox & Friends because they know he takes advice from the television better than from his own advisers. We have a president who was not humble enough to realize health care and North Korea are complex problems, and who has not responded to that realization by seriously studying the issues.

We are diminished when our political leaders excuse or ignore behavior they know is wrong. On Face the Nation Sunday, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a conservative Republican who just wrote a book about the Founding Fathers, was asked to evaluate Trump’s behavior “based on your view of the standards the founders set for virtue.” Lee took a hard pass. “It's not going to do any good for me or anyone else to come in and just comment on things we might not like about his Twitter behavior,” he said.

Lee’s position has become standard fare for Republican politicians who are appalled by their president but wary of criticizing him daily. Thus, the party that tried to impeach Bill Clinton to protect family values has embraced the position that it does no good to publicly discuss the president’s routine violations of basic decency. Unable to defend the president’s behavior, Republicans have decided the only viable path forward is to declare him exempt from moral judgment.

We are diminished when the people who need America’s mercy and protection most are harmed in service of lies and bigotry. The refugees the president has sought to bar from our shores have never attacked this country, and are in desperate need of its help. The immigrants the president has called rapists and murders commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born citizens — they are overwhelmingly here to feed their families, not terrorize anyone else’s. The men, women, and children who will lose health insurance under the legislation the president has endorsed are the same people he promised to help.

We are diminished when the rest of the world comes to doubt our leadership and reliability. A Pew poll of 37 countries ranging from Sweden to India to Brazil to Ghana shows attitudes toward the United States have collapsed since Trump took office. At the end of Obama’s presidency, 64 percent of people in these countries said they were confident in the US president. Today, that has fallen to 22 percent. Opinions of America overall have fallen by 15 points. The chancellor of Germany warned that Europe could no longer depend on the US.

We are diminished when our president has little respect for the institutions and norms that have protected our country. Trump has done his best to sow doubt about the legitimacy of America’s electoral system, of its civil servants, of its courts, and of its media. He has created an enemies list to explain away his failures and misdeeds — in his telling, he is beset by “so-called judges,” the deep state, illegal voters, and fake news.

He routinely praises authoritarian rulers abroad while dismissing and undermining democratic results at home. He fired the director of the FBI to squash a troublesome investigation and then bragged about it on television. His demands for loyalty pledges, and his resistance to the idea that political appointees serve the country rather than him, have rendered the US government untrustworthy.

A list like this can go on. It is a measure of our diminishment how much is left off it — how many outrages and disappointments have already faded from memory. Six months into his term, Trump’s policy achievements are few and thin, but he has coarsened our politics, shown the power of shamelessness, undermined our faith in each other and ourselves, modeled behavior we would punish children for exhibiting, and implicated all of us in the running fiasco of his presidency. He has diminished the country he promised to make great.