Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
How deeply has President Trump taken our politics into the gutter?
Well, consider this episode from President Bill Clinton’s first term. Sen. Jesse Helms, the ultraconservative and Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was asked about whether President Clinton should visit the troops at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Helms responded the President shouldn’t come down to his state because the military hated him because he had avoided service in Vietnam, supported gays in the military and reduced spending. The senator told a radio station, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.”
The remark provoked a response from the President, an inquiry from the Secret Service and front-page coverage in all of America’s newspapers. Most significantly, it prompted a climbdown from Helms, who said, “I made a mistake last evening which I shall not repeat.” (It also made for an excellent episode in one of the early seasons of West Wing.)
Fast forward to 2019 and now we have President Trump telling Breitbart News, “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of Bikers for Trump – I have tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point and then it would be very, very bad.” Twenty-five years after the Helms incident, though, there certainly won’t be an apology from Trump for threatening violence against his political opponents, there won’t be an investigation and I bet we don’t find it on the front page of any newspaper.
It’s hard to overestimate the damage President Trump has done to our political climate when comments like this go virtually unnoticed. We’ve all become numb to the lying, bullying and physical threats the President makes almost daily.
But the real damage goes beyond the lost comity. What is behind these statements is a different kind of, and much more serious, threat to our democracy. President Trump is seeking to undermine the foundations of our democracy as a way of gaining and holding on to power.
Remember back in 2016 when he trailed Hillary Clinton in the polls. Despite dogged attempts from reporters, Trump would not say he would respect the results of the vote on election night. He talked repeatedly about the election being rigged and voter fraud and certainly suggested his voters might take to the streets if the election was “stolen” from him.
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The office of the presidency has done nothing to instill any more respect for the system or personal dignity for Trump. Whether it’s threatening Democrats with bodily harm, egging on supporters’ attacks on the media or again refusing to say he will respect the results at the ballot box, the President continues an all-out assault on the basis of our democracy.
Many have wondered why the President seems so comfortable with Russian President Vladimir Putin or the leaders of Saudi Arabia and North Korea. My view is deep down he envies the power they have to impose their will and repress their people. He does not share a commitment to democratic values that most American cherish. He looks upon authoritarian regimes with a palpable admiration.
Ultimately, should we all care that our coarse President is threatening Democrats with Bikers for Trump? Probably not. Should we all care that we’ve become numb to all this? Absolutely.
This is not normal, and this is dangerous. The hallmark of our democracy is the peaceful transition of power. The ballot box, not the military, Hell’s Angels or Brown Shirts dictate who will sit in the Oval Office. We don’t see fine people on both sides of the question of democracy versus authoritarian regimes.
These ridiculous threats may seem silly taken out of context. But taken in the context of the last three years we all should be frightened for our future and protective of our democracy. History is littered with despots who started with words and petty threats. We know how many of those stories ended. This transcends party politics, and it’s long past time Republicans send a message to their leader that this behavior is un-American and beneath anyone, Democrat or Republican, entrusted with the authority of President of the United States.