Today is the anniversary of that awful day, two years ago, when Donald Trump placed his hand on a bible, took the oath of office, and was officially inaugurated as president of the United States.
And so today is a good day to declare that it is no longer appropriate to think of Trump, or to refer to Trump, as president. For while he took the oath of his office, he has done nothing since but shit both on the oath, and on the office.
Believe it or not, it was none other than Rudy Giuliani who brought this into focus for me.
Let me explain.
Commentators have recently been beside themselves about Giuliani’s interview last week with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, in which he declared that “I never said that there was no collusion,” only that there was no collusion involving the president. He then went on to elaborate: “There is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you could commit here, conspired with the Russians to hack the DNC.”
Giuliani is a liar. All he does in his capacity as Trump’s personal lackey, er, “attorney,” is dissimulate and lie. And his claim that he had never before said there “was no collusion” is a bald-faced lie. It now seems that perhaps the furious pace of lies has outrun even Rudy; for the recently-published Buzzfeed story about Trump suborning perjury from Michael Cohen in his Congressional testimony appears to suggest, at the very least, that there are other crimes that “you could commit here” (and that is true—that there are other crimes—even if the claims made in the story about evidence have now been called into question).
Giuliani is full of shit. But when I first heard his interview with Cuomo, and listened to him insist not that the campaign had not colluded with Russians, but only that the president had not colluded with Russians, it occurred to me that perhaps this statement is not a lie so much as a clever dissimulation, designed to inoculate Trump from the threat of impeachment. For in fact Giuliani is quite right, technically, in his claim that there is no evidence that “the president of the United States . . . conspired with the Russians,” and for this simple reason: the charge of collusion relates (primarily) to activities undertaken by Trump and his campaign before Trump was elected president and then inaugurated as president in January 2017. Giuliani never said that “there is not a single bit of evidence that Donald Trump conspired with the Russians.” He merely insisted that there is no evidence that the president had been involved in collusion. His very clever mincing of words simply evaded the most obvious, and important, concern: that the man who is now known as President Trump colluded with the Russians when he was only Donald Trump (and indeed such collusion probably helped him to become President Trump).
The man versus the office that the man holds.
This is a very important distinction, one that obviously relates to impeachment, the Constitutionally prescribed House power that is designed to establish a legal means for Congress to separate the man from the office by constitutional eviction.
But I’d like to suggest that it is important in a deeper ideological sense as well, and that it would be wise for us to make more of this distinction right now, in our linguistic practices, as a way of preparing for the political end of Trump.
We should do this by ceasing to refer to Donald Trump as “President Trump.” For though he claims to be the president, he does very little that indicates that he in fact performs the activities attached to this role.
How does anyone come to occupy an officially prescribed role anyway?
Many years ago, while teaching an introductory political theory class, I decided to begin with an experiment. I showed up on the first day of class dressed slovenly, and without any notes or books or accoutrements of scholarship. I sat in a seat facing the front of the room, and waited until around five minutes after the official class start time to get up, walk to the front of the room, and commence bossing my students around, telling them to write a paragraph on some random topic, then demanding that all freshmen raise their hands, and insisted that they sit in the back. The students, of course, complied. And then I stopped them, and I asked: “Why are you doing these things? How do you know that I have the authority to order you to do these things? I have not even introduced myself. How do you even know who I am?”
The students immediately responded: “You are the teacher of course. Who else could you be?”
And I then admitted that I was the teacher, and introduced myself, and explained that the simple fact that I had shown up and acted as if I was the teacher did not mean that I had a right to do this and deserved to be treated as the teacher. I then explained the little “exercise” that had just transpired and that our class would center on three important questions: (1) who has authority?; (2) how those who have authority come to have this authority, and what meanings are attached to this authority; and (3) when those “in authority” exceed the bounds of their authority, or in some other way lose the right to claim the authority, in which case it becomes acceptable if not required to say “No!” to them.
Trump “won” an election and participated in an inauguration ceremony. He thus became President Trump. His defenders, like Giuliani, insist that we must strongly distinguish between these two identities, and do so in order to absolve him of any liability for his misdeeds, on the grounds that whatever he did before he was president, he cannot as president be held accountable for them; and that as president he has plenary powers which exempt him from any liability for firing subordinates without cause, having suspicious secret meetings with dictators, and committing breaches of national security via Twitter.
I would suggest that we accept the strong distinction between Trump the man and President Trump, and then press this distinction to its proper conclusions: that Trump needs to be separated from the Office of the President expeditiously, and that in the meantime we start, right now, to refuse to use the title of president in all public references to him. “President Trump” is an honorific title that he long ago ceased to deserve. He might still hold the office. But we don’t need to dignify that unfortunate temporary circumstance by according him a title of respect.
Indeed, if we really think hard about it—actually, we don’t need to even think that hard!—it becomes clear not only that Trump behaves in a very “un-presidential” way, but that he does not really do the work attached to the office or respect the constitutional duties attached to the office or even spend most of his time acting as if he were doing the work and respecting the duties.
For readers curious to think about this more systematically, I strongly recommend Corey Brettschneider’s The Oath and the Office, for it is very much a book for our time. It is very careful and judicious in its treatment of the presidency, and it contains little that is directly critical of Donald Trump’s job performance. But Trump’s manifest unfitness for the job, and his utter disdain for so many of its responsibilities, is the very audible subtext of every page of the book.
Does the president treat his office as a public service or as a private sinecure that enables the enrichment of him and his family? (I am using gendered pronouns in this case for obvious reasons.)
Does the president understand and respect the law or treat the law with contempt?
Does the president use the office to inform the public about important matters, or to insult, demonize, and lie on a daily and even hourly basis?
Does the president treat the Congress as a co-equal branch of government, and work with members of Congress to pass legislation, or does the president make fun of important Congressional leaders and refuse to accept any outcome other than submission?
Does the president treat the Executive Office as an institution consisting of many important advisers, stakeholders, and experienced public servants, or does the president treat the Office with contempt, and go rogue, trusting foreign dictators more than the intelligence provided by government agencies?
Does the president regard the White House, with its Oval Office, as the place to be and to work, or does the president spend as much time as possible at his own private resorts, at public expense, his fat ass seated on a golf cart while the world burns?
Does the president read?
Does the president listen?
Does the president know anything of public importance?
Does the president do anything at all intended to serve the public interest?
Does the president do anything but destroy the institutions of government?
Donald Trump does nothing that we expect from a president, and everything we expect from a narcissistic, lying thief.
He should be removed from office at the earliest convenience.
And until he is so removed, we should stop even thinking of him as president.
Tomorrow begins year three of the Trump so-called presidency.
But it is a presidency without a resident.
For the man named Trump who currently lives part-time in the White House is nothing but a motherfucker.