Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Julian Zelizer: The prestigious meaning of the American presidency has eroded under Trump
The younger generation will now equate the Oval Office with the ability to send angry tweets and have public tirades, he writes
With the kind of comments that Donald Trump allegedly made to the pregnant widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, regardless of what Chief of Staff John Kelly was suggesting he say, Generation Z won’t be surprised if a president fails to display empathy and is more focused on lashing out against adversaries.
We must wonder how younger generations will be impacted by the “Trumpification” of the American presidency. For Generation Z, the Americans born between 1995 and today, it is possible that the institution will not be held in the same esteem it once was. But even if an adult is not blindly nostalgic about the complicated history of the men who inhabited this office, they surely must understand that we have seen things in the last 10 months that have challenged the basic norms and values we expect from a commander in chief.
Perhaps the worst danger is that we are no longer shocked by anything.
If Richard Nixon taught the baby boomers that they could never fully trust a president, Trump is erasing any expectation whatsoever that the president should aim to heal and lift the dignity of the Republic.
Most striking has been the fact that he abandoned any sense that a president should strive to achieve unity. He is at war with almost everyone. One of his most consistent characteristics has been his willingness and eagerness to divide. Since his campaign, he has introduced Americans to a new enemy on a weekly basis.
The cast of villains in the Trump universe keeps growing like in a Batman comic book. What started with “Lying Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” has come to include the parents of a deceased soldier, judges, “fake news,” intelligence agencies, Puerto Rican officials, Democratic and Republican legislators, football players and more. He is a leader so busy hating that he doesn’t have much time to discuss who he likes.
President Trump has also shown that it is possible to align with right-wing nationalist forces and to survive politically. The events of Charlottesville were shocking as the President resisted drawing a clear line between himself and noxious white nationalists, some of whom were Generation Zs as well as Millennials, who took to the streets and killed one counterprotester.
The President was quicker to condemn NFL players peacefully protesting against racial injustice than he was to come down hard against white neo-Nazi groups protesting the removal of statues that were erected with the purpose of memorializing the segregated South. This problem was not a one-off and has reemerged repeatedly since his campaign started.
The rhetoric that the President uses is in itself something that will be difficult to undo. Through his tweets and the non-teleprompter speeches, Trump has been willing to use insulting, vicious, and bullying words without hesitation. For a generation that has grown up with this kind of vitriol mainstreamed through social media and polemical news, having these kinds of words come directly from the President of the United States is the final pillar in the normalization of this discourse. Words matter, especially when they come from the White House.
Whether he was tweeting about Mika Brzezinski “bleeding badly from a face lift” or mocking “Liddle” Sen. Bob Corker or complaining about Puerto Ricans who “want everything done for them,” we have never seen anything like his public tirades coming from the Oval Office. Unlike with President Nixon, the expletives are not deleted.
With foreign policy, his willingness to use this language, such as blasting “Little Rocket Man,” has worsened the possibility of a nuclear war. He has legitimated using the bully pulpit to make baseless accusations (Obama wiretapping him) and claims (massive voter fraud) that are not true, yet they make their way into our national conversation because he said them. All presidents play with the truth and hide things, but this has been on a scale and scope unlike anything we have witnessed.
Knowledge has also diminished in its importance vis-à-vis the White House. President Trump has disparaged the legitimacy of expertise and deep knowledge when dealing with policy. Presidents, he suggests, should just act according to what their gut says. The President proudly displays an understanding about public policy that is paper-thin. He relishes in being a non-expert, part of his ongoing attack on the “establishment,” but in ways that really undercut the serious role that data plays in good governance.
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It is very easy to become complacent and accept the excesses of President Trump as the new normal. But this is a mistake. We should be clear that Trump’s actions and words could have enormous effects on one of the most important institutions of our democracy. Although one day he will no longer inhabit the office, a generation growing up today won’t be surprised if the person who follows embraces the style and values Trump has brought to the highest levels of power.