Bad influence

11. He is the poorest of role models

Simply by virtue of the position they hold, U.S. presidents are role models. Children are encouraged to excel in school or in certain extracurricular activities by adults who tell them, “You could be president someday!” Some of them actually believe it. (And why not? A child has a roughly 1 in 10 million mathematical odds at being elected president in their lifetime.) Even those who scoff probably take it to heart in some way, for instance by realizing that the presidency is something worth aspiring to. From hearing adults talk, kids learn that individual presidents can be liked or disliked but the office of the president is always worthy of their respect. As long as the person who is the president hews to certain basic conventions of behavior, this is not a problem. What happens, though, when the president thoroughly defies those conventions?

Adults are less likely than children to view a president as a role model, but they are influenced by presidents nevertheless. When a president makes a speech or participates in an interview, their statements typically are replayed ad infinitum over the next several hours or days, until something else supplants them. Statements that are particularly memorable can have a much longer lifespan, measured in decades at least. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” still resonate 78 and 60 years, respectively, after they were uttered. Both of those presidents still are capable of inspiring a great many Americans. So are a number of others, including Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

DT apparently succeeds in inspiring a certain segment of the American population. To date, he has inspired acts of hatred ranging from racist epithets to mass murder. He has inspired a frighteningly large number of white supremacists, who used to dwell in the shadows, to engage in public demonstrations of their views. And let’s not forget that he has inspired almost everyone on one side of the aisle in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to abandon the last vestiges of bipartisanship, fairness, and goodwill. It’s too early to be certain what the long-term effects of his influence on Americans will be, but it seems probable that they won’t serve to advance the ideals of democracy or equality or even basic human decency. What will be remembered of his words in five, ten, fifty years from now? His suggestion that immigrants from Latin America are rapists and murderers, perhaps. His phrase, “Lock her up,” almost certainly. His boast about sexually assaulting women, without a doubt.

Change the channel

The uncomfortable fact is that DT is the first U.S. president who isn’t even remotely acceptable as a role model for anyone with a functional sense of ethics. Four years of exposure to his repellent rhetoric has gone a long way towards normalizing ways of speaking, and underlying ways of thinking, that no decent American should ever consider to be normal. Another four years of it may well push us past the point of no return. In voting him out of office, we have the opportunity to correct DT’s corrosive influence and begin the healing process.