Growing up, almost every young child loves to play pretend — making believe that he or she is a movie star, astronaut, or king or queen. For a fleeting moment in my own childhood, I dreamed of the American equivalent of being king, imagining someday that I would be the President of the United States of America. It was a lofty goal that eventually took its place on my mental bookshelf alongside architect, lawyer, doctor, and sports hero.

From its inception as a democratic country on a new continent, America as a nation has shunned the concept of royalty. Kings and queens have no place in a republic where government of the people is by the people.

None-the-less, Americans have traditionally enjoyed some level of royal equivalency in the office of the president. A certain allure has always surrounded the commander in chief. Once established as the presidential residence in November of 1800, the White House inherited the shroud of intrigue that accompanies the chief executive. As one of the oldest and most regal mansions in the United States, the White House represents more than the power of the office.

The White House signifies an elevated level of decorum and dignity that attends America’s highest political office. With its opulent staterooms, grand banquet halls, and picturesque porticos and lush lawns and gardens, it has long been the centerpiece of presidential style. It is America’s palace where history does not only happen. It is created.

White House
America’s royal palace.

It is a place where foreign dignitaries are treated with white-gloved service and hospitality. It is a home and office where one imagines Abraham Lincoln in quiet contemplation over the decision to go to war with his own countrymen; where F.D.R. and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt graciously hosted Churchill during a wartime Christmas; and where, among the stress of the Cuban Missile Crisis, J.F.K. was surrounded by not only advisors in the West Wing, but by history.

The past week of turmoil in Washington, D.C. contrasted against the history of the White House finally spurred me to realize what about the Trump administration is so disconcerting. More troubling than the scandals (because have not all presidents had scandals of one type or another?) and normal partisan discord (which is a necessity of a multiparty system of government) is the lack of presidency. It is that we, as a nation, have lowered the bar.

“A man should be able to hear, and to bear, the worst that could be said of him.”
Saul Bellow

With the election of Donald Trump, America has entered a new era of political expectation. While it is every American’s right to run for political office — even that of president — we have typically not expected the person who occupies the White House to be such a boor. With Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office, America has seemingly accepted a new political vulgarity.

Prison Toiler
A throne fit for a king.

The next four years are likely to continue as the first four months have. This presidency will be remembered not for the dignity of the office, but for the lack of refinement, the chaos, and the departure from decorum. It will be a time of limited vocabulary, of the same shouted monosyllabic words, gaffes, and gaudy behavior. It will not be thought of as an period lead by integrity, respect, or intellect.

As I watched President Trump curtsy to King Salman of Saudi Arabia this week, it occurred to me that Donald Trump has not outgrown the pretend play that we have all engaged in as children. Instead of growing up like the rest of us and aspiring to be presidential in word and deed, he is still simply acting out a fantasy…like a little boy who wanted to be king.

 

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