On the 5th of December 2018, America came to a standstill. The postal service did not deliver mail, the stock markets were closed, some businesses were shut, and the federal courts took a day off from hearing cases. Capitol Hill, a month after the excitement of the midterms, fell silent. The proverbial tumbleweed rolled by.
The cause of this strange occurrence was the death of President George H.W. Bush at the age of 94. President Trump, following a tradition that has prevailed since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, declared a national day of mourning in his predecessor’s honour. Flags were flown at half-staff as the former president lay in state in the Capitol rotunda. For one day, the District of Columbia was the stage not of incessant political conflict, but a performance of national unity.
It was quite unusual – at least before the pandemic – for governments to will into existence moments of economic inactivity. Yet a national day of mourning upon the death of a president makes good sense for the overall health of the state. This was obviously the case in 1963 when the nation had to come to terms with the traumatic and inexplicable death of the youthful incumbent. Less so for the death of Herbert Hoover a year later, a figure not quite as adored as JFK, whose political life was by then a distant memory; this might explain why he is the only president to die since 1963 not be commemorated in this fashion. Dwight Eisenhower, who died in 1969, was honoured in death both as a president but as a war hero, and, by the time of Harry Truman’s death in 1972, the tradition had stuck. The president should not, in the end, be a partisan or divisive figure, so his death – like that of the monarch in the UK – ought to occasion a moment of national unity, where political factionalism is put aside.
It is customary, at this moment, for the deceased president’s erstwhile political rivals to speak of him with kindness. Jimmy Carter, whom Bush defeated as Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980, praised Bush’s presidency as being ‘marked by grace, civility, and social conscience’. Bill Clinton, who put an end to that presidency in 1992, gave thanks for his ‘great long life of service, love, and friendship’ and his ‘innate genuine decency’. More than empty rhetoric, these words came from a place of unfeigned affection and warmth: away from the cameras and the fanfare, Bush on his deathbed desired the company of Barack Obama, whom he welcomed in Houston only days before his death. These relationships, straddling the political chasm, were real.
But even if they weren’t, we all know that saying nice things about the recently deceased is basic decency. Michael Dukakis, whom Bush defeated in the 1988 election, never enjoyed a close personal relationship with the president; he always resented Bush for the infamous Willie Horton attack ad. ‘Obviously we disagreed pretty strongly on domestic policy, and I wasn’t thrilled with the kind of campaign he ran’, Dukakis said upon Bush’s death. Still, he found much to praise about Bush, in particular his ‘negotiating the end of the Cold War with Mikhail Gorbachev’. Their political disagreements notwithstanding, Bush was a ‘very wise and thoughtful man’. Dukakis adhered to the familiar template for eulogising one’s political enemies. In its distilled and hackneyed form, it goes something like this: ‘we might have disagreed on X, but he was [insert a list of positive attributes here]’. Then the life of the deceased is couched in the uncontroversial and apolitical language of ‘public service’; his still-living opponents, distinguishing between ‘politics’ and ‘character’, will try, as best they can, to focus on the latter
But it is impossible to completely demarcate politics from character, and even if it were, this distinction would only be a helpful one if the deceased figure had a good character. Nixon’s politics followed from his personality: the Watergate scandal was a product of his intense paranoia. Still, when he died, his enemies found ways to reflect upon him positively. George McGovern, whom Nixon defeated in the presidential election of 1972, called him ‘an old friend’. He knew that Nixon played dirty in that election, but spoke warmly of him nonetheless: ‘I made my peace with him years ago’.
It is as ridiculous a notion as Barack Obama speaking of Trump in the way that Bill Clinton spoke of Bush… This is not because Hillary Clinton and Obama lack basic decorum and sensitivity – far from it – but because political decorum in America is dead, and Trump its executioner.
Will Trump ever cast aside his grudges and ‘make peace’? Will Hillary Clinton ever describe Donald Trump as ‘an old friend’? It is as ridiculous a notion as Barack Obama speaking of Trump in the way that Bill Clinton spoke of Bush: ‘I cherished every opportunity I had to learn and laugh with him; I just loved him’. This is not because Hillary Clinton and Obama lack basic decorum and sensitivity – far from it – but because political decorum in America is dead, and Trump its executioner.
So, if I were Clinton or Obama, I would be dreading the day that Trump goes the way of political decorum. There will be pressure on them to go through the motions, to say the sort of things that are commonly said, but any attempt at doing so will reek of inauthenticity. Obama won’t be able to describe Trump, whose ascent to the presidency was aided by his promotion of racist ‘birtherism’, as ‘an old friend’. He can’t say, with a straight face, that he ‘loved him’. Hillary Clinton can hardly praise the man who wanted to ‘lock her up’ for his ‘innate genuine decency’.
Not even Trump’s most fervent supporters, however dissociated they are from reality, can sincerely describe his term in office as ‘marked by grace, civility, and social conscience’
Not even Trump’s most fervent supporters, however dissociated they are from reality, can sincerely describe his term in office as ‘marked by grace, civility, and social conscience’ (indeed, part of what attracts them to Trump is that he dispenses with those soft niceties). There is no ‘grace’ or ‘civility’ in Trump’s own attitude to death. ‘He was horrible’, said Trump of John McCain when the latter died in 2018. He felt that the national outpouring of grief at McCain’s death was ‘over the top’, and was reticent to fly the White House flag at half-staff. There was something poetic in the fact that Arizona, which McCain represented in the senate for 31 years, was the first red state to turn blue on election night, depriving Trump of his second term in office.
Until a few weeks ago, perhaps something could have been salvaged from the wreckage. ‘I may not have agreed with him on much’, Obama might have been able to say, ‘but he did a good job of promoting peace in the Middle East’. ‘He steered the economy well – at least until the pandemic struck, but that was hardly his fault’. ‘He got large swathes of the population involved in politics, people who were previously disenchanted’. All of this would be clutching at straws, but it would make for at least a threadbare eulogy. Now Trump’s entire legacy – as Murdoch’s media empire keeps pointing out, presumably to play to his narcissism – will be overshadowed by his desperate attempts to overturn the 2020 election with outrageous conspiracy theories and farcical lawsuits. It is a pathetically attempted coup, but an attempted coup nonetheless.
In the next few years, America will have to come to terms with this bizarre, hilarious, and disturbing chapter in its history. As it is, I find it difficult to imagine a national day of mourning for Trump, like there was for Bush. That tradition, after all, is a relic of what the presidency once was. Of course, the president represents a particular party and is trusted to govern in line with certain political principles. But the president is also the head of state and the commander-in-chief, so should on some level, as the figurehead of the American state, transcend the political divide. The office is supposed to have intrinsic dignity, around which the state can unite. But Trump’s fate is now sealed, and in death, he is bound to be as divisive as he was in life. He never was a president for all Americans, and that will never change. Sad!