There’s a moment about ten minutes into Aaron Sorkin’s American President that has always been particularly moving to me. The Chief Of Staff, President Shepherd’s life long best friend, is about to leave the Oval Office, and says “Goodnight, Mr. President.” The President turns to him and says “Call me Andy…you were the best man at my wedding. Call me Andy.”
The Chief of Staff smiles, looks Shepherd in the eye: “Whatever you say, Mr. President.”
I thought of this scene a few months back when Tom Nichols—a guy I like and respect—who’s an Anti-Trump traditionalist, and the author of The Death Of Expertise, put out a series of tweets stating that Americans, no matter how much they may dislike Mr. Trump or his policies, should address Trump as Mr. President, because the office demands it, even if the person occupying it doesn’t live up to it.
For most of my life, I, like Nichols, believed in the notion that the office is larger than the individual who holds it. That’s why the American President scene had such resonance for me. Those words, “Mr. President” mean something. By intoning them, we hold ourselves and the president accountable to the ideals the office embodies and calls us to. We count on the President, especially, to aspire to the hopes we invest in the office and the honor it demands, and to recognize, for all of us, that this American nobility is granted, not inherited, and must be earned.
The words “Mr. President” are, like the office itself, not bestowed, and they too must be earned. They are an honorific. Not a constitutional prerogative.
In another movie, Frost/Nixon, two aides of David Frost’s are discussing what they will do when they meet Nixon. One of them says “I won’t shake his hand.” A few minutes later, when the occasion presents, not only does he shake, he also calls him by his title.
The exchange is played for laughs, but the point is clear. The cultural imperative to go along with the rituals of power can bend the will of even the most committed members of the opposition.
Donald Trump is the president. Elected legally. Through that election, he earned the rights to the powers and privileges of the office. But he earned the burden of its responsibilities and demands, as well. And his regular rejection of the fundamental rights of his fellow citizens, his intentional manipulation of tribal fears and hatred, his blatant racism and calls to racist action, his disregard for the very rule of law that grants him the office itself, all prove his lack of interest in serving with honor. So I choose not to offer him the honorific.
If I ever meet Donald Trump, I will refuse to call him Mr. President. And I hope you’d do the same.
The truth is that Trump himself doesn’t understand the purpose of the honorific. Instead he regards it, and the office itself, as a tool of pomp and circumstance, to be used to inflate his own status, business interests and sense of self.
Every other president of my lifetime became larger once they took office as they realized the way Americans counted on them. Even the ones whose policies I reviled were clearly trying to live up to the best of the American ideals. But Trump has proven that he doesn’t care about those ideals. He has proven that by using his position to bully average citizens on Twitter, by using his position to attract people to the properties he owns, like his Washington Hotel, by using his position to defend the many friends of his who have been accused of committing crimes, high and low, all across the land.
Mr. Nichols and others who see the world the way he does, seem to believe that we are harming the institution if we don’t hew to the traditional signifiers of respect. I believe the only way to respect the office is by withholding those signifiers until the office holder earns them.
But this isn’t only about training Trump to act presidential .
In the same way calling someone Doctor imputes upon them authority and status, possibly allowing them to cut corners or worse, like Larry Nessor did when he was the United States Gymnastic Team’s doctor, calling Trump Mr. President imputes upon him strength and position, inviting him to indulge his worst instincts.
When I read Trump’s cruel tweets, when I watched the military parade he threw in his own honor, when I see him judge other world leaders through the prism of whether or not they said nice things about him, when I watch him strut around his company’s properties, I do not see a President. I see a character from yet another movie…
In the Princess Bride, the ruler of the land is Prince Humperdinck. Humperdinck is vain, he is selfish, he is cruel and, in his country, he is beyond reproach. Nobody will stand up to him. Nobody will call him out for his misdeeds.
Humperdinck preens and poses and acts like royalty. And he gets away with it for almost the entire film. But in a movie filled with sword fights, torture, giants and martial conflict, Humperdinck’s ending does not come through violence; Wesley, the farm boy, simply refuses to regard him by his title. Instead, Wesley calls Humperdinck out for his thin skin, his cowardice, his fear that at core, he is a weak, scared narcissistic baby. Upon hearing these words, Humperdinck crumbles.
Trump is Humperdinck. Humperdinck is Trump. To call him Mr. President would be to ennoble him, would be to help him continue his giant con.
Like Wesley before me, I’d rather be sent to the Pit of Despair – because that’s where we’re all going to end up anyway if we don’t demand that our presidents rise to the honor of the office we have granted them, for a few, short years.