Commentary: “Being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are,” said First Lady Michelle Obama in 2012, echoing a pearl of wisdom said to have been uttered 2,600 years ago by the Mytilenaen leader Pittacus. The saying attributed to him by Diogenes Laërtius was, “Office shows the man.”
Pittacus shows himself in a famous anecdote from his days as a general. Sometime after overthrowing a tyrant, he led a war against Athens for some territory, when he and his rival general, Phrynon, agreed to decide the war in a one-on-one fight. Pittacus won that fight and ruled his city-state for ten years, where he is said to have written laws in poetic form.
If the presidency reveals the person, it is not always in public view. Before the modern media age, presidents operated largely out of the public eye, and in our time we view them through a highly-managed haze. We do not often see them unvarnished, off-balance, or unrehearsed. The presidents we see behave almost as busts of themselves, and only in later reports do we glimpse the private person.
This may be why the social media activity of President Donald Trump is significant. His Twitter account is active throughout the day, serving as a sort of EKG of the president’s mind, famously uncontrolled by his Chief of Staff or advisors, scratching out a dismal picture of how this commander-in-chief processes information and views the world. He responds to television programs minutes after watching them. We see what media he consumes and how he formulates and reinforces his view of reality.
This real-time view of the president’s mind is occasionally terrifying. During this past week alone, the president has used Twitter to share inflammatory videos targeting Muslims, threatening 1.1 percent of the U.S. population; he sabotaged a bipartisan meeting with Congressional leaders less than two weeks before a budget deadline with an impulsive tweet belittling the Democratic leadership and declaring bad faith in the negotiations; and he continued calling for investigations of news organizations for reporting unfavorable to him (which he calls “fake news”).
His behavior in front of cameras is scarcely reassuring. For instance, consider his behavior at this week’s event honoring Navajo code talkers, stealing the spotlight from indigenous war heroes to invoke the popular name of an indigenous heroine while mocking one of his political rivals.
Let us not kid ourselves: American presidents have exercised poor judgment, been dishonest, and found ways around limits on their power and the rule of law. Yet we have seldom seen a president so visibly disordered, so publicly. This presidency is shaping up to be an historical test of the republic. How well can our institutions defend themselves against a chief executive who goes off the rails psychologically? We may now be in the midst of that experiment.
Pittacus advised his era that being virtuous is hard work, and that a good person is impossible to find if you look too closely. That said, it is not unreasonable to ask ourselves individually what kind of citizenship we practice, and what sort of person our citizenship reveals.
Even in these Trumpy times, we are not helpless. It might be more important than ever to exhibit a fondness for truth, sociability, wisdom – and the courage to act.
Algernon D’Ammassa is a reporter and columnist with the Deming Headlight. Share your thoughts email@example.com.