Many countries separate the offices of head of government and head of state. In the UK, you have the Prime Minister and then you have the Queen. In Germany you have the Chancellor and then you have the President. Even in France, with a strong presidential system of government, you have a Prime Minister and a President. The head of state is the representative of the state on the world stage and in some sense the embodiment of the nation. He or she has important ceremonial duties in addition to whatever role he or she has in actual governance, which can range from no essentially no role in a state like Japan to the most important role in a state like France.
But the United States combines the offices of head of state and head of government in one person, the President. Not only does the President have to lead the executive branch of the government, he has to embody the American people and represent us to the rest of the world. Our first President, George Washington, set the bar of character and virtue very high. He was the kind of fellow who said things like, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” Since then there have been ups and downs, and there have been presidents who I thought had bad policies and presidents who I thought might not be very good heads of government, but in my lifetime (the first president I can remember is Jimmy Carter) I don’t think we’ve ever had a president until now who I thought was an embarrassment in the role of head of state.
Here was what our President had to say yesterday:
As I said, an embarrassment. And there are consequences in terms of our respect abroad. One of the President’s cabinet secretaries was laughed off the stage at an event in Germany a few days ago. George W. Bush was not a good head of government, but no one was laughing when his cabinet secretaries came to town.
The only leader of a major western country who I can recall being such a national embarrassment in recent years was Italian Prime Minister and plutocrat Silvio Berlusconi, with his “bunga bunga” parties and assorted other unseemly and ridiculous scandals. But at least Berlusconi was just the Prime Minister, not Italy’s President. I’m sure many foreigners watching and reading about President Trump have a worse opinion of Americans than they did before, because like it or not, we chose Trump as the head of state and what folks think of him affects what they think of us.
I’m not even going to address the deeper worry: that we have the head of state we deserve—that President Trump does embody the nation as it is in 2017. Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair, which today means, let us find a way—Republican pressure for a resignation, impeachment if the ongoing investigations warrant it—to bring the Trump presidency to a close and to start the hard work of rebuilding our moral standing at home and in the world.