In The Godfather, Michael Corleone tries explaining to his fiancé how his gangster father, Vito Corleone (the Don), is “no different than any powerful man… like a president or senator.” She pushes back: “Do you know how naïve you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.”
“Now who’s being naïve, Kay?” Michael replies.
This was essentially the same conversation President Donald Trump had with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on Super Bowl Sunday. O’Reilly pointed out that Russian President Vladimir Putin has people killed, and Trump said, “What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
Now who’s being naïve, Bill?
In Michael Corleone’s world, the American political system was just as corrupt as the mafia, just more honest about it; it was sort of a moral equivalence. Trump seems to buy into the geopolitical version of this theory, too. Putin has people killed, sure. But so does America.
Trump said virtually the same thing more than a year ago on Morning Joe—so you know he didn’t just “misspeak.”
There are two primary problems with Trump’s theory.
First, it’s true America is not perfect; we’ve made mistakes. Yet in World War II, for example, America sought to liberate, not conquer (like the Soviets). And domestically speaking, Saturday Night Live’s ability to mock the president and his administration the way they did last night—and get away with it—proves that this nation is a free country. Rush Limbaugh is another example: He mocked Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for a combined eight years, and the only real damage he suffered during that time was self-inflicted. Good luck trying that in Putin’s Russia.
Yes, America has made mistakes over the years. We do a lot of self-flagellation—another sign that we are transparent about our sins. And yes, sometimes a complex world requires tough choices. But a doctor who performs surgery is not to be confused with a butcher. Here, motives matter a great deal. When someone tried to compare the invasion of Grenada to the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan, William F. Buckley explained that comparing the two things was “like saying that the man who pushes a little old lady into the path of a bus is morally equivalent to the man who pushes her out of its path, because they both push little old ladies around.”
Donald Trump is not a transformational leader; he is a transactional leader. He does not summon us or inspire us with big ideas; he makes us want what is coming to us. We get what we want because we are powerful enough to demand it. We do deals. This ethos is perfectly fine for a New York casino magnate; it is a problematic ethos for the leader of the free world.
It means he rejects American exceptionalism, a concession that has made him some strange bedfellows. “Trump has no use at all for American exceptionalism,” wrote Jeet Heer of The New Republic. “That’s one of his few redeeming qualities.” And Glenn Greenwald called this moment “your periodic reminder that the U.S. arms, funds, supports, protects & props up the world’s most savage despots, and has for decades.”
Meanwhile, as Jake Tapper pointed out, Republicans would be protesting in the streets if Barack Obama had uttered the words: “What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
Trump is half-Howard Zinn and half-Gordon Gekko. He combines a traditional left-wing assumption that America is just as compromised as every other nation (maybe worse) with the transactional business ethos that puts profits ahead of people, ideas, and values.
Aside from his false assumption, it is obviously problematic to have a president whose worldview sees America as less than exceptional. (Think of the potential implications of a president who thinks killing journalists isn’t abnormal.)
The second problem is that Americans need to believe that America is special.
During times of crisis, the president should be able to inspire Americans to sacrifice and serve a cause greater than their own self-interest. When people believe that they are part of something special and exceptional, this belief binds them together and makes them stronger. This type of political rhetoric must ring true in an authentic (not manipulative) way.
In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan—who would later channel moral clarity by calling the Soviets an “evil empire”—said, “we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.”
He went on to say that the crisis we were facing “does require… our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves, and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
It is the kind of speech that Donald Trump could never (and likely will never) give—because he doesn’t believe it.
Donald Trump probably thinks that he can “Make America Great Again”—and simultaneously suggest that we don’t have any more moral authority than Russia.
Now who’s being naïve?