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The Face That Broke America
Even if the New York indictment fails, Trump’s photo in the National Portrait Gallery shows exactly why he doesn’t mind destroying the country.
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When I saw Donald Trump’s picture at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in February, I realized something I should have known all along.
This man is part of American history. His deeds will forever be enshrined in national monuments like this one. And the wrongness of that to someone like me was brought home as I made my way through the gallery, which houses portraits of the nation’s presidents.
I was in DC that weekend for a funeral
A cousin I’d been especially close to all my life had finally succumbed to a prolonged illness. Although her transition was a release from suffering, I was deeply saddened. It was the third funeral of someone I’d grown up with that month. So the thought of death was particularly strong with me as I spent the last hours of this unexpected trip to the nation’s capital visiting the gallery.
For a good part of my life—since my first class in existentialism as a college sophomore—I have believed that it’s best to live each moment as if death might come in the next. Remaining mindful of that forces a question: How to live the succession of moments immediately preceding that inevitable demise?
The answer to that question depends, of course, on what you think is coming next. If you think everything ends here, you might behave differently from someone who believes in an afterlife. Who believes he has a soul. And that the soul is on its own journey, which will continue long after the ego-self has vanished.
Integrity & firmness
No doubt the funeral I had just attended influenced my thoughts as I stepped into the President’s exhibit on the second floor of the National Portrait Gallery. As I looked upon the famous Landsdowne portrait of George Washington, I was reminded that he lived a scant 67 years.
To contemplate Washington—who set the tone of the presidency and the nation itself—is to remember that he believed we are more than our bodies.
Reluctant to accept the presidency after being unanimously elected to that high office, he wrote to his friend and fellow war hero Henry Knox: “Integrity & firmness is all I can promise—these, be the voyage long or short; never shall forsake me although I may be deserted by all men.”
One reason Washington could write those words and become the man history tells us he was is that he believed in a Creator God (which he called Providence). One who was active in the universe and whose three main traits are that He is wise, inscrutable, and irresistible.
I don’t know what Washington’s God would have made of the fact that his wealth derived from slavery. Or how our first president justified in his own mind why Providence worked for him but not for those he enslaved.
The presidential standard
But despite rationalizations inherent to his time, which would not be acceptable today, George Washington will always be the standard by which all other presidents must be measured. To make your way through the gallery of 44 other portraits and to read the summaries of their legacies is to form an idea of how well each leader measured up.
Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, George Bush and son, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Barack Obama—they’re all there. Each man beset with the difficulties imposed by his own limitations and the forces of history that either defeated or propelled him forward.
America’s first Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren once wrote: “The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.”
When I reached Donald Trump’s portrait, I stood behind a young man with a military haircut, who was scratching his head as he considered the image of our 45th president. Maybe he was just scratching an itch. But the gesture seemed to reflect my own sense of bewilderment. How does one reconcile the presence of Donald J. Trump within a gallery that begins with George Washington—if not to see it as evidence of decline?
The NPG summary of Washington’s presidency says this:
As a military and political figure, George Washington was a unifying force during the country’s formative years. He fought in the French and Indian War and later served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.
After being unanimously elected as the first president of the United States, in 1789, he installed the Supreme Court and the cabinet, quelled the Whisky Rebellion, and defeated the Western Lakes Confederacy in the Northwest Indian War (and facilitated the subsequent peace negotiations with the alliance).
Washington enjoyed immense popularity at the end of his second term, but he declined to run again, insisting that the United States needed to take proper precautions to avoid hereditary leadership or dictatorship.
If you lose your sense of history,
it’s easy to forget just how much Washington did for our country. But as the poet warns us, to forget too much is to court damnation.
Which is why it’s instructive to see the historical summary of Donald Trump in that very same National Portrait Gallery:
Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States after tapping into populist American sentiment. Having led a career in business and television, he created an identity that was anti-traditional government and put forth an “America First” agenda.
During his tenure, Trump appointed a record number of federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices. He brokered the Abraham Accords, significantly restricted immigration, and reduced government regulations. In February 2020, the unemployment rate was a record low at 3.5 percent.
Throughout his term, he was impeached two times: the first on charges of abusing power and obstruction of Congress and the second for incitement of insurrection. He was acquitted by the Senate in both trials.
This photograph of Trump, from June 17, 2019, was taken on the day before he officially announced he would seek a second term. The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), which resulted in a devastating loss of human lives and an economic crisis, became a key issue during his reelection campaign.
More Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election than ever before, and the majority elected Joseph R. Biden Jr. Nevertheless, Trump did not concede, and a mob of his supporters, who refused to accept the results, attacked the U.S. Capitol complex on January 6, 2021, when Congress was working to certify Biden’s win.
I spent a long time looking at Trump’s phogograph,
trying to figure out what was written in his expression. No doubt some would see it as strength. But I saw in it an element of Nietzsche’s will to power — a form of egoism and self-determination in which you actualize your will onto your surroundings. I also saw in it an expression of contempt.
In America, we tend to think of history as paradox. Through much of our history, we have accepted that our contradictory elements may be irreconcilable and are best managed through acceptance and synergy. Majority rule with minority rights is a basic tenet of liberal democracy.
But the Trump presidency ushered in a dialectical view of history, which we haven’t seen since the Civil War. That view holds that adversarial relationships can only be transformed through conflict. What else was the January 6th uprising, with its calls to hang Mike Pence, but a call to physical confrontation whose purpose was to overturn the presidential election?
You have to have contempt for our institutions and for the presidency itself if you incite an action like this. And contempt like that is contagious. Trump’s acolyte and sycophant Marjorie Taylor Greene has called for a national divorce. And on April 2nd, she told 60 Minutes that the government did not deserve to be respected. What is that if not the contagion of contempt?
At some point, NPG’s historical summary of Donald Trump will have to include his March 30th indictment by the Manhattan District Attorney for hush-money payments made to a porn star. In the end, it may have to include other indictments too.
The former president’s response to these legal proceedings underscores the contempt expressed in his portrait. He and his supporters believe that he should be immune from prosecution because he once sat in the Oval Office. That the laws of the United States do not apply to him if the people in charge of those laws disagree with him politically. That the indictment is just one more witch hunt against a patriot who has done nothing wrong.
As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis explained it, the DA is twisting things to make it a felony. That is not the rule of law. That is politics.
That sounds pretty bad until you realize that DeSantis had not seen the indictment when he said those things. Nor had he seen the evidence underlying the indictment. No one will see that until it’s presented at trial. This is how the rule of law works. You don’t get to dismiss it because you hope to curry favor with a certain kind of voter.
The truth is this.
Donald Trump has never believed in the rule of law. He has always had contempt for it. He has spent his life using the courts as a plaything, bringing frivolous lawsuits and tying up opponents in litigation.
He handed out pardons to cronies found guilty of federal crimes. He ignored subpoenas to return classified documents removed from the White House. He has declared bankruptcy multiple times to keep from paying his debts. And the list goes on.
Trump’s rhetoric after the indictment is further proof of how far the 45th president stands from George Washington. The first president would not have attacked the Manhattan District Attorney because Washington would have understood that the DA does not indict anyone. Only a grand jury comprised of everyday men and women can do that.
Washington would have understood and accepted that an indictment is not a conviction. That it is merely the referral of a case to a judge and jury, which will further review the evidence and make a decision. That’s how the rule of law works.
Even if the Manhattan DA were as crooked as the yellow brick road, he could not force a grand jury to vote or a judge to pronounce sentencing.
But Trump knows this.
His remarks about the indictment were an attempt to get out in front of it. To brand it as political persecution before anyone else could call it what it is—accountability. As with January 6th and the Big Lie that the election was stolen, he would rather break the country than accept its foundational institutions.
That is contempt with a capital C. That is the will to power in its ugliest form. That is Donald J. Trump, the antithesis of George Washington in every conceivable way. That is why Trump will be the next president of the United States.
But only in his mind. Or maybe in his dreams. When he is finally forced to accept that he is not above the law. That he is a mere bubble on the tide of empire, who must eventually return to ash and dust just like the rest of us —whether he believes in an afterlife or not.
©2023 Andrew ‘Jazprose’ Hill
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