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.