I was recently reminded of how memory can get blurred over time, erasing facts in favor of vague impressions. When I mentioned to a thirty-something woman several months ago that I was eager to see the Broadway musical Cagney she looked puzzled and asked, “Who is Cagney?” Then she thought a minute and said, “Oh, wasn’t he a famous gangster who killed a lot of people?”
No. James Cagney was an actor who played gangster roles. He was also a delightful song and dance man, beloved by generations of moviegoers.
My young friend’s memory managed to dig up a connection between crime and Cagney, but she got the facts wrong.
Memory and history matter in other ways too. Here’s an example from the recent HBO production All the Way, about President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ).
In a remarkable scene in the Oval Office, Johnson, lobbying for the passage of his 1964 civil rights bill, thrusts his face close to that of Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, and says: “We’re making history here, Everett. And you have to decide how you want history to remember you.”
Dirksen was vigorously opposed to the bill as it stood and wanted to water it down with forty amendments. But he took to heart LBJ’s advice about his legacy. He and other Republican senators whom Dirksen persuaded voted to end the filibuster, enabling the historic bill to pass in the senate 73 to 27.
Trump and his army of sycophants do not seem to care about how history will remember them. They may be encouraged to disregard their legacies by gloating about their ability to rationalize their lies and hypocrisies with deceptive arguments that their base relishes. History will not be so generous.
In fact, when it comes to history, words matter a great deal. Book authors know that. If an editor questions the meaning of one of their statements, they may offer an explanation: “What I meant was…” To which the editor responds, “But your written words didn’t say that. And unfortunately, you do not come with the book. Your words must stand on their own.”
How will the words of Trump and Company stand in the absence of spin and distortion? Not well. More likely they will collapse when statements and actions are placed side by side, not only in the history books, but also in texts on ethics and politics. They will surely be cited as extreme examples of political corruption and of placing party above country. A new term may be needed to capture the unprecedented magnitude of the lying and hypocrisy.
Consider Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s condemnation of Trump before he endorsed him for the most powerful position on the planet:
Rand Paul: “[Donald Trump] is a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag… a speck of dirt is way more qualified to be president.”
And here are the words of Texas Senator and Trump sycophant Ted Cruz before Trump won the nomination:
Ted Cruz: “[Donald Trump] is a pathological liar… he doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. The man is utterly amoral. You know, morality does not exist for him.”
But this didn’t stop Cruz from supporting Trump. Was he blinded by the lure of being in the power circle of a Republican president, one that he had denounced in the most damning terms?
And the lying that Cruz cited was not a new discovery. In a recently found letter of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch—who had extensive dealings with Trump—written twenty-seven years ago, Koch endorsed the words of Deputy Mayor Alair Townsend: “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized.”
Words matter, but that reality eludes Paul, Cruz, and many others, including Vice President Mike Pence.
After Trump’s May 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Brussels, and Sicily (for the G-7 meeting), Pence celebrated victory in much the same way that George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in 2003, less than two months after the start of the Iraq war, a war that continues today.
Despite a lukewarm response at best to Trump’s tour from the press, Pence bragged that America was back, great again, and finally respected by the world. History will record that much the opposite was true, that Trump damaged America’s reputation in Europe and the Middle East. That’s what the books will say, and Pence will not be there to offer an “alternative explanation.”
What the books will report is that members of Pence’s own party scratched their heads after Trump’s trip. To many of them, his conduct was deeply at odds with the history and character of the United States. The books will show that commentators here and abroad, including world leaders, ridiculed Trump and expressed dismay about America’s shrinking role on the world stage. They will cite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lament that Europe could no longer depend on America. They will quote political commentators who observed sadly that in just 140 days Trump tore down the prestige, trust, and high regard for the U.S. that was two hundred years in the making.
And what a field day history books will have when they describe Trump’s first meeting with his full cabinet on May 12, 2017. After the president bragged at some length about his administration’s great accomplishments, the cabinet members took turns showering him with tribute and expressing effusive gratitude for allowing them to be part of his team and to participate in his outstanding leadership and agenda. One can only wonder what sort of pressure was exerted on them to glorify their leader in this embarrassingly unprecedented fashion. The only thing missing: each bowing to kiss the Don’s ring.
Will Trump and his army of sycophants wake up and change course? Or will history remember them as the quintessential political buffoons of the twenty-first century?
We don’t yet know the answer. But we do know that Donald Trump himself may be a lost cause, since he shows no respect for facts, is uninformed on almost all issues, and displays an arrogant lack of interest in learning anything. The mere suggestion that he seek knowledge apparently threatens his grandiosity. If you know it all, why waste your time gathering information, much less guidance, from others?
What about the sycophants who continue to suck up to Trump? Are they so attached to the appearance of power that Trump bestows on them that they are loath to tell the truth? Despite ongoing chaos and near daily shakeups–as well as the deluge of leaks–in the Administration and Congress, many of Trump’s loyalists seem reluctant to risk rejection from the power circle for telling the truth, no matter the cost to our nation, the world, or their own legacies.
With the Trump administration possibly crumbling, as investigations of the President and staff members escalate, others who have performed admirably before their association with the Trump presidency may still have a brief window of time to preserve the way they are remembered. To do so, they will have to reclaim the moral cores they abandoned and then take bold action. It would also be wise for them to meditate on the words of LBJ to Everett Dirksen: “You have to decide how you want history to remember you.” And the fate of former President Richard Nixon should remind them that “All the President’s Men [and Women]” are subject to the judgment of law and history.
Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College.
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