President Donald J. Trump delivered his farewell address Tuesday afternoon over YouTube. At least that is how it came into my feed. Twitter, I presume, was not available for distribution.
This tradition of a formal goodbye from departing presidents goes all the way back to George Washington. Then, in the early days of the country, Washington did not have to leave the office. There was no constitutional limitation on terms, and if Washington had chosen to run, he would have been reelected, again and again, until the fading end of his days.
The country loved Washington, and Washington loved his country, so he declined to run again. The nation must choose a person to succeed him. Washington knew his countrymen would take this as hard news.
A republic, with its deliberative forms inducing a people to govern themselves by reflection and choice, is no easy thing to sustain. Washington’s stature had held the early republic together. And for this reason, Washington chose to retire to private life after two terms. His last public act was to tell Americans, like it or not, you will govern yourselves.
And since they would be governing themselves, Washington offered a few tips about how to do it. Avoid foreign entanglements, he admonished. Further, he added,
that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.
Never in our history have these principles been more in doubt.
We are beset as a people by deep economic and ideological division. A large number of people do not believe our elections are honest. Another large number of people believe their political opponents should be “deprogrammed” through “truth and reconciliation” or some other political monstrosity. The nation’s capital is occupied by tens of thousands of soldiers, who are being vetted for their loyalty, it seems, to the dominant political party.
The national government and many states are at the edge of insolvency. In foreign policy, we are faced with a formidable competitor—if not adversary—in Communist China. It is an economic and a political challenge, not (as of yet) a military challenge, and yet we are completely unprepared to meet it.
Our government is incompetent and has ceded political control of speech, a sacred thing that a republic should defend with the greatest vigor, to monopolies that it birthed through the creation of the internet and then fostered through statutory protection.
The embodiment of the incoming administration is a visibly fading 78-year old man, held together by Botox and a face-lift. A vindictive 80-year old woman controls the House. In the Senate, a torch has been passed from a 78-year old man to a new genera . . . scratch that . . . to a 70-year old man. Our country is not well.
It is a time for optimism only in the sense, as Winston Churchill put it, there is no use in anything else.
Trump’s farewell address was spoken like it was a second inaugural. The president thanked his supporters—namely his family and Vice President Mike Pence. He listed his accomplishments, the most important of which has been ending foreign wars. And he looked positively toward the future. But he failed in his address to warn Americans of the dangers ahead.
I will make the warning here for the president. One can scarcely tell whether what we live in is any longer a republic. Trump ran essentially on restoring the notion of citizenship, the middle class, and republican virtue (these last two are inextricably intertwined). Even before he was elected, the bureaucracy treated Trump like an infection. The apparatus of the state openly refused to give the president its cooperation. The unelected and unaccountable security apparatus sought to charge the president and his affiliates with crimes so heinous that, had they been true, they would be treason. Unable to make a case, they took a few scalps on process crimes and harassed the administration relentlessly.
The president’s own party would not cooperate when it controlled both houses of Congress. Presuming they were in Washington to fundraise, rather than legislate, they reneged on every promise they had made to the American people, culminating in the spectacular refusal to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The GOP lost the House, and only then came to the president’s defense, warding off a second impeachment effort.
Finally, when the nation was faced with a new pandemic and social crisis, partisans used this in every way they could conceive as a tool to remove the president from office. They succeeded.
So goodbye, Mr. President. You tried. And we appreciate the uplifting final note, and I too wish the incoming administration luck, because lacking brains, or really goodwill, it is the only thing they—and we—have going for us. But I am just not feeling the uplift at the moment. The contradictions of your valediction point me in another direction, via Robert Frost:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.