In ancient Rome, emperors distracted the citizens from their grievances by staging spectacles and doling out bread. Discontented citizens could forget their harsh reality and watch gladiators savage each other or chariot races or elaborate amphitheater productions.
I was reminded of this while watching President Trump’s self-produced “Salute to America” on the National Mall on July 4. It occurred to me that the adoring crowd in MAGA hats don’t want elected leaders addressing and fixing the many problems facing our country. Like Roman plebeians, they’ll settle for amusement and, in the case of Trump’s extravaganza, the cheesier the better.
Did you listen to Trump’s words? They could have been written by a high school freshman — a distinct possibility given the low bar it takes to work in the Trump White House. It was all pablum; no soaring “ask not what your country can do for you…” rhetoric, no evocative “a shining city on a hill” imagery. Just a laundry list of clichés.
Trump was probably itching to go off-script and turn the event into another campaign rally. He really didn’t have to, as Lucien Truscott IV observed in Salon. The crowd loved every banal word.
America is the greatest country in the history of mankind. We also have the most powerful military in the world. No other nation would dare challenge our might, not Russia, not China, not Iran.
It’s called peace through strength, and we don’t need displays of tanks or military aircraft to have it affirmed on the day we’re supposed to celebrate America’s independence.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and reciting the obvious is not leadership. It’s demagoguery aimed at making this weak president look strong. Trump is as superficial as his Salute to America show was. He has a dangerous over-confidence in his gut and he refuses to do the heavy lifting the job of president requires.
President Obama spent long evening hours studying briefings, learning what he didn’t know by reading the information his expert advisers produced. Trump spends his evening hours watching Sean Hannity glorify him while tweeting his inane thoughts. He seldom reads anything and he disregards expert advice, explaining why so many of the heavyweights Trump originally recruited have departed, leaving behind a circle of sycophants.
Here’s the thing about leadership: “You don’t hire smart people and tell them what to do,” said the legendary Steve Jobs. “You hire smart people to tell you what to do.”
Sadly, Trump’s presidency says more about his supporters than it does him. Like the president, they don’t appear to care about doing the heavy lifting of learning what they need to know to make good choices in their elected leaders. If there’s partisan gridlock in Washington, it’s because We the People have allowed our indifference or biases to let it happen.
“The most dangerous man to any government is the man who thinks things out … without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos,” newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken wrote more than 80 years ago. “Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable.”
Doesn’t that describe Washington today?
While I don’t share his cynicism, Mencken had a very low opinion of American voters. “On some great and glorious day,” he said, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Now, I’m not saying Trump is a moron. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was a moron.
No matter our views, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by hollow spectacles or the empty words of an entertainer in chief. We have to take a responsibility as participants in our government to consider and even accept that with which we disagree, not reject it out of hand because it doesn’t mesh with what we think we know.
We’re watching the erosion of the institutions that actually make America great: our legislative branch, our judiciary, our elections. They’re being replaced with authoritarianism, conspiracy theories and stonewalling. Trump tells us to ignore the evidence of our eyes and ears, to believe only him, and that those in Congress seeking to hold his administration accountable are “deep state” operatives out to “get” him.
In his mind, the president believes anyone who opposes him is un-American. The emperors thought the same thing when they ruled Rome. The only difference is, they could summarily crucify anyone who stood up to them.
Trump can’t do that — at least not yet — so he characterizes anything critical of him or his administration as fake, and those who honestly report what he says and does as enemies of the people. He’s worried because Trump knows voters who think things out threaten his presidency.
Bread and circuses went only so far for the emperors. In the end, the Goths sacked Rome. We need to heed that history.