It is clear in President Trump’s vengeful reaction to his impeachment acquittal that the lesson he has learned is not what so many Republican Senators had hoped—that the experience would moderate his behavior and he’d be more respectful of individuals and institutions that challenge his authority. This has always been a recurring pipedream for wistful Republicans who continue to try to justify his vicious authoritarian leadership.

For Trump, it is all about projecting strength, irrespective of setting or circumstance. But his concept of strength, while popular in some quarters, is anathema to large swaths of the American public. It is manifested in childish tantrum-like acts of retribution wrapped in bullying, bluster and lies. Since the impeachment trial he has felt unchecked and unaccountable. His recent purge of those who testified during the House impeachment hearings and his intervention in the justice department’s handling of the Roger Stone trial are two current examples of how this President can never be expected to change.

This raises palpable concerns about the aftermath of the 2020 election, whatever the outcome. If the President loses, his disregard for American institutions will prompt him to declare the election illegitimate, further eroding the American public’s trust in our elections and the rule of law. How will we deal with that? If he wins, he will see victory as a mandate to intensify his autocratic, vengeful version of politics, scapegoating perceived enemies by threatening their lives and livelihoods in ways heretofore unimagined. How will we deal with that? How do we, as a people, challenge the President’s definition of strength? How do we infuse leadership with qualities of humility, empathy and grace?

There has been a lot of handwringing on the part of Democrats who, with the precipitous decline of Joe Biden’s candidacy, wonder if there is a candidate in the field who is strong enough to go “toe to toe” with the President. An important part of the answer to that question lies in how we define strength—and I would argue that several Democratic candidates are strong enough to fill that bill IF we don’t let the President define the terms. One of my favorite quotes about the juxtaposition between strength and gentleness is from Saint Francis de Sales, 17th century Bishop of Geneva, who said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness and nothing is so gentle as real strength.”

Increasingly, “we the people” have begun to see through the faux strength professed by this administration. We have gained a visceral understanding (coupled with a taste of fear in what the future may hold) as we experience how vengeance and vitriol are no replacements for empathy and compassion. Candidates on the rise in the Democratic primary—Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have made empathy a central part of their messages; Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have relentlessly pointed out systemic failures in an economy that values profits over people, thereby failing to offer a framework for kinder, gentler solutions to the world’s ills.

I have been especially struck by the quiet power of Pete Buttigieg’s intellectual rebuttals to Trumpian bluster. The understated courage in his life’s journey—as a veteran, as a gay man who has willingly thrust himself into the limelight to battle a President believed to pose an existential threat to our country—reveals a strength that President Bone Spurs can never appreciate. If we, the electorate, are clear about defining the word strength to include gentleness, generosity, grace under fire, intellectual acumen and moral sensitivity, and we work to elect a challenger to the divider-in-chief, then the upcoming election offers us hope that the current occupant of the Oval Office will be but a one term President.

3 thoughts on “Real Strength

  1. Bob, thank you for your voice and perspective in this moment of political momentum. I have arrived at an observation: “If you like Trump, you love America.” The President truly embodies the reality of American values and its true religion. His popularity comes from the consistency of his behavior and verbiage. There is no ambiguity or confusion about who he is, what he represents, and what he believes. Simply, the President is the embodiment of America. To like him is to love America. Lest we ignore or forget that America engraves its theology on its currency, “In God We Trust.” It does not replicate or reflect the “Beatitudes,” but occasionally insists on publicly displaying the “Ten Commandments.” Indeed, if you like Trump, you love America: its history, its priorities, its practices, and its true religion. Lies are mere words expressed in the moment. All people are not valued, in fact, there are groups exterminated, decimated, and destroyed. Slavery remains a refined peculiar institution that fails to fully and fairly compensate workers for their labor. Idolatry, the love of money and materialism, reigns as America’s true religion. War is more profitable to the industrial mechanism that drives the American economy than the country’s humanitarian endeavors. One only needs to examine the weapons in place and the scientific explorations to advance greater violent technologies. If you like Trump, you really do love America. The unvarnished truth of a nation built on massacre, exploitation, and global destruction reflects the Commander-In-Chief now serving this nation. To like him is to love America.

  2. When 9/11 happened, we were in Ridgefield Park, NJ and I’ll always remember the middle class neighborhood’s response.. Bonfires and dark tribal outdoor gatherings. I began to read about the phenomenon and learned the meaning of the term “jingo” (an exaggerrated, cartoonish faux patriotism.) (Sports fans painting their bodies WWF-style, jeeps trailing oversized American flags and eagles, bumper-stickers displaying a raised middle finger..) More disturbing is I can remember, too, the feeling of wanting to be seen as loyal, included, so as not to risk inviting any of the growing suspicion – an unsettling line of thought that is alone worth exploring..) Trump, to me, is a culmination – a crude, brutal jingo-anime cartoon version of what passes as “strength” when truly, he is the epitome of weakness – an American Caligula. As a child, I believed every word when Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music sang “strength doesn’t lie in numbers” Or wealth, but rather “in nights of peaceful slumbers.” There is still more to unfold here. Michael Moore is another one who is far from defeated. It might be in fact just a small number of us but we MUST keep those candles lit.

  3. -I do have faith that Arthur is being overly pessimistic, but he is right that we’re going through a pretty dark stretch right now, as we have in the past. Perhaps Obama’s greatest rhetorical and policy gifts were his ability to appeal to our better angels first while letting the policies trail slightly behind (with the notable exception of Obamacare).
    -So what I’m waiting for and working for is a positive message that Americans will find compelling in that face of the unhappiest prosperity in my lifetime. “It might be legal [to separate families at the border], but is that what we want? Is that all we want? [We’re] proposing a policy that keeps desperate families together by [doing this]. It might even be legal to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall, but is that what we want? We propose to….”
    -I personally don’t fret or regret Joe Biden’s likely departure from the race, but I do hope that he hangs in there long enough that his endorsement matters. Replacing the president remains the number one priority.

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