Throughout history, Americans have often looked to and expected strength from their elected leaders. And throughout history, such strength has often defined effective leadership. Strength, however, has taken on a new meaning under Trump. In fact, Trump not only believes strength derives from unapologetic exhibits of contention and division, but racial and cultural division.
But more than anything, “strength” under Trump has become a political and strategic mask. It is falsehood pageanting as truth. Insecurity camouflaged as confidence. Incivility veiled as political incorrectness. Yet despite how easily Trump’s tough guy rhetoric crumbles upon scrutiny, millions of Americans continue to fall for his bravado.
The outcome has been predictable. Since Trump’s election, the nation is more divided than ever. However, rather than de-escalate rising tensions, the Trump administration has instead repeatedly chosen to push a false narrative on strength.
Look no further than Trump’s Twitter account. When recently asked about Trump’s combative Tweets, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responded, saying Americans “didn’t elect somebody to be weak, they elected someone to be strong.”
The implication, of course, is strength somehow comes from one’s ability to Tweet insults. But the White House couldn’t be more wrong. Strength is not one’s willingness or ability to demean. Strength is not marginalizing another’s views or concerns. On the contrary, strength is humility. Strength is restraint. Strength is the courage to admit when you are wrong.
Trump has had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate all of these traits. However, a year into his presidency, he has shown no interest in rising to the occasion, let alone unifying the nation. This became clear following Hurricane Irma, in which he belittled Puerto Rico. We saw it following the attacks in Niger, in which he attempted to discredit the grieving widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson. And we saw it again last week as he lashed out at the Mueller investigation.
And then there is the NFL. Following protests in which players kneeled during the national anthem, Trump attempted to frame strength as subordination. Worse, as homogeneity. In Trump’s narrow world view, strength has no relationship to diversity. Strength can’t come from discourse or dissent. Strength must come from conformity. And anyone who doesn’t conform is anti-American, anti-military, or quite simply a “son of a bitch.”
But again, Trump is wrong. The true strength of the United States has, and always will, derive from its differences. Its colors. Its cultures. The freedom to speak out. And if anyone should know and respect this, it’s Trump. It was the First Amendment, after all, that allowed Trump to rise to the highest office in the land to begin with through criticisms of the previous administration and promises to “make America great again.”
One year later, however, America is not great again. And Trump is more than just a flawed president. Donald Trump is a misguided president. He is a president who, unlike presidents before him, explicitly depends on fear, division, and a false sense of strength to advance his agenda.
This is something Americans cannot, and must not, stand for any longer. While the United States is far from perfect, it has too much at stake to backtrack. As a result, Democrats and Republicans alike have a historic obligation to put political differences aside and unite—to oppose such strategies and demonstrate true strength comes not from discord, but discourse.
Anything less is a failure of our own duties as Americans, at a time when American values are under siege from its own president.
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Brandon Loran Maxwell is a writer, speaker, and prize winning essayist. His writings and commentary have appeared at The Hill, Salon, Townhall, The Washington Examiner, The Oregonian, FEE, and Latino Rebels Radio, among others. He regularly speaks on a variety of social topics, and has been cited at outlets such as The Los Angeles Times, Vox, and The Washington Post. His personal essay “Notes From An American Prisoner” was awarded a Writer’s Digest prize in 2014, and his one-act play “Petal By Petal” about drug and alcohol addiction was performed at The Little Theater in 2009. In addition, Brandon has fronted various punk rock and hip hop groups. He holds a B.S. in political science, and often writes about prison reform, immigration reform, pop culture, music, and Chicano culture.