By Mitchell Blatt*
Two of the reasons Trump supporters are outraged this month are that Democratic Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis called Trump an illegitimate president, and actress Meryl Streep criticized Trump in her speech at the Golden Globe awards. Trump is being disrespected in a way that no other modern president has been, we are told by Republicans and Trump supporters.
That may be. Conservative activists did begin holding Tea Party protests shortly into the first year of Obama’s term, and Rush Limbaugh did say that he hoped Obama failed, but Republican legislators didn’t begin making such attacks on the president until nine to twenty two months into his term. Joe Wilson Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced his goal of making Obama a one-term president in October 2010, and Rep. Joe Wilson interrupted Obama at his State of the Union speech to shout, “You lie!”
So it may be true that the Democrats are getting their unprecedented campaign of opposition to the new president started sooner than did the Republicans began unprecedentedly opposing Obama, but it’s also true that Obama and Trump are different people who got elected under different circumstances. By comparing Republican response to Obama to Democratic response to Trump, Republicans are implying that Obama and Trump are equal and should be treated equally. For a party that traditionally supports relatively unbridled capitalism, that’s a strange position to take. If everyone were equal in everything, shouldn’t everyone demand equal pay as each other?
The moral justification for free-market capitalism is that some people work harder or contribute more to society and the economy than others. Not everyone is equal.
Consider, too, religion and the justice system. Christianity holds that there is heaven and hell and that those who sin unrepentantly might be sent to suffer in the depths of fire and brimstone for all eternity. The justice system is premised in part on the idea that people should be judged by their actions and sent to prison if they commit crimes against humanity. (According to political scientist Mark Ramirez, support for punitive sentences is relatively high in the U.S.)
To imply that Obama and Trump (and Bush and Clinton and Reagan…) should be treated equally is to imply that they are all equal. To be sure, they were all elected president, and the title has historically had an effect of conferring some level of respect and legitimacy on all who have served.
Reince Priebus may be right that no Republican congressman called Obama illegitimate, but some congressmen did dabble in birtherism. Trump himself led the movement for years and only less-than perfunctorily admitted Obama was born in America at the end of his presidential campaign–after it became an issue in the press.
While protesters crowded the streets to denounce Bush as “not my president,” due to the unique circumstances underlying his victory, Democrats by and large accepted him as legitimate. But even though there were differences in the demeanor, values, and attributes of each of America’s recent presidents, they all fit within certain confines. They all acted basically respectfully towards their opposition. Critics can point to any small thing they did, but none can point to any recent American president questioning a judge’s impartiality on the basis of the judge’s race, shouting down reporters on a repeated basis, mocking POWs for having been captured, attacking female journalists with references to “blood,” siding with an adversary of America in a feud with his own country’s intelligence agencies, or broadcasting anti-Semitic memes from his campaign apparatus.
Respect must be earned. From a certain point of view, Donald Trump hasn’t done anything to earn respect, and indeed he has done a lot to earn disrespect. Since his election, Trump hasn’t changed. He has indeed continued to engage in the same unhinged acts that led to his historically low approval ratings. If Trump is angry that he is being publicly disrespected by celebrities and lawmakers and that many artists have turned down requests to play at his inauguration, he has only himself to blame.
About the author:
*Mitchell Blatt moved to China in 2012, and since then he has traveled and written about politics and culture throughout Asia. A writer and journalist, based in China, he is the lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong guidebook and a contributor to outlets including The Federalist, China.org.cn, The Daily Caller, and Vagabond Journey. Fluent in Chinese, he has lived and traveled in Asia for three years, blogging about his travels at ChinaTravelWriter.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @MitchBlatt.
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