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Will Ex-Presidents Check Donald Trump?

by Arthur J. Magida

Apr 21, 2017 | Election 2016, Politics


America prides itself on peaceful transitions from one president to the other. No coups. No backstabbing. No backward glances at what might have been. We witness this every four years or, at the most, every eight. No matter how bitter a presidential campaign or how antithetical an outgoing president’s policies and ideology may be from his successor’s, the newcomer is ushered into the highest office in the land with dignity and courtesy. Such continuity is a fundamental tenet of the United States. Only in the weeks preceding the Civil War was it violated, when the southern states seceded after the election of Abraham Lincoln. What followed took the lives of roughly 620,000 men over the next four years—approximately two percent of the nation’s population.

Also part of our tradition is the absence of any remonstrance from one president toward another, regardless of the ideological gulf between them. Almost since the founding of the nation, it has been considered unthinkable for a former president to criticize a sitting president.

But as these are the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls, such niceties must cease. Since January 20, the nation’s most fundamental values have been distorted, as the man who spoke of “carnage” at his inauguration presides over a divided and fractious nation. This carnage—a blow to our comity and polity, to our sense of union and of purpose—Trump has personally unleashed. If this is what is in store for us over the next four years, the United States may be unrecognizable by 2020.

If this is what is in store for us over the next four years, the United States may be unrecognizable by 2020.

Confronted by such conditions, it is incumbent upon the five living former presidents—Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—to disregard tradition and form a Presidential Committee of Conscience that would have one purpose: to admonish and correct a sitting president whose actions are a threat to the defining ethos of the nation; whose policies contribute to the shredding of the fabric that bind us together as a people and fracture alliances that have been the foundation of a reasonably calm and sensible global order; whose cavalier utterances betray the dignity and purpose of the office of the presidency.

The first weeks of Trump’s presidency—our introduction to this man as chief executive—visited havoc on the nation. His tweets were impolite, immature, and menacing, from targeting a sitting federal judge to attacks on The New York Times. His executive orders defy any logical and accepted manner of shaping the federal government to a new president’s will: witness his Muslim ban which is a rebuke to the nation’s history of welcoming the stranger, regardless of faith or origin.

As he moved into his first month in the Oval Office, the transgressions continued: He has insulted the leaders of Australia and Mexico; attacked the concept of an independent judiciary; affronted a revered civil rights leader, John Lewis; excommunicated leading news outlets from White House briefings while slandering the press as the “enemy”; suggested a moral equivalence between state-sanctioned killings in Russia and actions of the United States; turned his Florida resort into an open-air situation room; pandered to anti-Semites and racists; persistently lied about his electoral college “landslide;” and impugned the integrity of his predecessor with baseless claims of wiretapping.

There have been exceptions to the veneer of politeness we expect of former presidents. For example, when Teddy Roosevelt was disappointed that his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, was abandoning TR’s pioneering progressivism, he attacked him as a “fathead,” a “puzzle wit” (apparently, an insult 100 years ago), and having “brains less than a guinea pig.”

Unlike TR, a Presidential Committee of Conscience would be dignified while being resolute and constructive. It would comment only when the nation’s rule of law, principles, and values are at risk. It had better be formed soon. And if not a committee, then one or more of the former presidents must begin to speak out. George W. Bush, who for eight years refused to comment on the Obama presidency, has taken the lead. Bush took issue with Trump’s immigration policy, his name calling, and his characterization of the media as the “enemy of the people.”

“I consider the media to be indispensible to democracy,” Bush said. “We need an independent media to hold people like me accountable.”

The other “exes” should join him, speaking with the moral and political authority that only they possess.


Arthur J. Magida is writing for W.W. Norton a biography of Noor Inayat Khan, the Sufi heroine who fought the Nazis.

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  1. Very good comments by Magida well known but good to repeat. However, I think his suggestion that all living past presidents form a committee to address this issue is absolutely great. Now let’s see how courageous these men are and if they will step up to condemn this obscene so-called “leader of the free world!”

  2. Each one of these former presidents has contributed to the situation in which we now find ourselves. I can’t bear the idea of moralizing from these individuals. What could Bill Clinton say that would not make you gag ? Obama, who is now in payback phase ? The Bushes ? Please spare us.
    Carter is probably the only true Christian in the bunch – but even he was against unions.
    We are seeing the results of creeping neoliberalism – it’s taken 40+ years to get to where we are.
    I see no way out unless there is a complete economic collapse – who knows what would come out of that.
    Sorry to be so negative but I try to see without blinkered vision even if the view is pessimistic.

    • You’re not being negative at all. Or pessimistic. You’re simply speaking the truth. Many liberals and liberal-minded people are in deep denial about what is and has been happening here. Trump, the sick manifestation of our rotten politics, arrived on the scene at the right time, right on cue. Liberals and some conservatives apparently think he appeared out of the ether courtesy of the Russians, Jill Stein, a dozen or so leftists writing mean things on their blogs (paid by those self-same Russians), and Bernie Sanders. The idea that things were mostly fine until Trump showed up (Hillary during the election declaring that the USA is “already great”–a preposterous and easily identifiable lie to most of the people on the planet, including many Americans) is just taken for granted, as obvious and simple as breathing or waking up in the morning. Very, very bad.

      • Seriously ?
        Trump was elected by a minority of American voters, submits a 30 year old heritage foundation budget and submits a Supreme Court nomination for a UNCONSTITUTIONALLY stolen seat, who was also prequalified and vetted by the affore mentioned heritage foundation. The Koch Mercer DeVoss axis of evil has never won a election. Why are they running this country.?.

  3. So, George W Bush is gonna lecture Trump on how to comport oneself in the White House? Maybe Bill Clinton and Obama can get some advice from Trump on how to invest all that dough they made and are makin’ giving speeches to gangs of crooks. My God, this is too much even for a joke–is the author kidding? The entire neoliberal project and it’s concomitant disasters–corrupted and corrupting politics, the foul circus that is our electoral process, a slavish and sycophantic press–all gave rise to Trump. This didn’t happen overnight. The Democrat’s standard-bearer cheered on Trump after his outrageous and illegal bombing of an airstrip in Syria, as did the leadership of the Democratic Party. All these things I’ve mentioned are known, and easily knowable, but they have apparently escaped the author’s attention.

  4. Henry Clay was a little astonished to find, when he was reading Hamilton for ammunition I’d imagine, that no law is passed without the signature of the Speaker of the House, while many could be, and later we found have been, passed without the President.

    Trump has been gelded this past week by little rubberface Ryan — and this time without the elaborate play of deference that went before the first refusal of the GOP to go along with Trump’s healthcare nonsense. I think the Hill must have been ringing with irritation over the Senate’s being subjected to that silly bus-tour downtown. In any event, Ryan’s slap was direct, loud, and rude.

    I have no sympathy for any of them. All we’re seeing now is a bunch of midgets running around pretending that it’s 1936 and Taft is in the White House. They’re wrong, on this as on so much more. This bunch have neither Taft’s brains nor his ability to pick out a good tie consistently.

    Legislatively, however, that’s a better place to be than we were a couple of weeks ago: all we face is three or seven years of Federal Brownback. That’s a disaster for America, but Ross Douthat got one right for once the other day. It Could Be Worse, he headlined.

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