Today’s New York Daily News featured an article by famously opinionated columnist Shaun King entitled “Here’s Why I Will Never Call Donald Trump ‘Mr. President'”.
In it, he explores Mr. Trump’s character flaws. He writes with great eloquence about the man’s character, detailing his failings with remarkable fervor. Much of what he says is well-documented; he keeps to the facts, and where it’s allegation or opinion he states it outright. His point is that Donald Trump is so very odious that he’s entirely unworthy of personal courtesy, and he argues that point well.
But, with respect, I must disagree with Mr. King’s conclusion. We show respect to the office, not the man.
This means you stand when he enters the room. If you’re in the military, you salute. He is either “Sir” or “Mr. President”, and formally, he can be “His Excellency” (but never “Your Excellency”). His staff refers to him as “The President”. Friends and family who see him casually in his off hours might be more relaxed, but not in the Oval Office.
In his own house he takes the head of the table; in mine, he sits at the right side. He leads any formal procession and is the social equal of kings. He neither bows nor kneels to anyone unless he wishes.
You don’t make sudden moves, you don’t threaten him, you don’t throw things, and you don’t pull a gun. That’s mainly out of respect for the Secret Service, mind; they get touchy about these things.
And all this is because he’s always cloaked in the dignity and privilege of the office he holds — which includes the Secret Service, an ellipsoidal office, and a rather antiquated house with some lovely lawns. This is not because the Presidency ennobles the person; it’s because the office is one that is worthy of respect, regardless of the incumbent.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any of the alleged defects in Mr. Trump’s character. This is because, in this discussion, they are irrelevant; the topic concerns the etiquette due the office and not the man. Mr. Trump is not the Presidency, nor can the fact or quality of his existence impact that office more than a tiny fraction.
There have been more than forty men in that office, many possessed of true greatness. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe — they were instrumental in the creation of the mechanism of our nation. Lincoln suffered across five bloody Aprils of civil war. Wilson, the doomed statesman; Roosevelt and Kennedy, who in different ways gave their lives in the service of our nation. The sacrifice and suffering of these great men has, if you will, consecrated the office far more than any single person’s poor power to add or detract. Even Washington himself, for all his military glory and the establishment of presidential precedent, was only one man, and he was never greater than his office or the nation it represents.
Against all that, we have accusation against Mr. Trump’s character, which stands no comparison.
But, lest you misunderstand me, not even the office of the Presidency can shield the man himself from censure. The language of our First Amendment is simple; we cannot abridge the freedom of speech or of the press. And there can be no state religion (as there was in Europe) declaring the person of our leader sacred, somehow untouchable.
So we have the right to call Mr. Trump the man on his personal flaws, on his defects of character. We can hold him accountable, at least in the arena of public awareness, for any crimes he may commit or in which he might be complicit. We owe him no respect that would prevent this, because that’s him the person, not the office he will hold.
This means you get to call him a jerk, or an @$$hole, or an arrogant Narcissist. You can accuse him of racism, of misogyny, of horrible fashion sense. You can even refer to him as a public menace who should never again have access to Twitter; that’s fair game.
You can even call him a toupeed Cheeto if you want, even in print — but, in deference to the office he will occupy, to his face you have to call him “Mr. President, you toupeed Cheeto, Sir”. And you’ll do it standing.