“Other Than That, Merry Christmas”

December 28, 2018  
Posted by Jay Livingston 

Some countries have a ceremonial head of state — a person who stands above or at least apart form partisan politics and who therefore can more easily be seen as representative of the whole country. The UK has the Queen. It is the Queen, not the prime minister, who delivers the Christmas message.

When surveys ask Brits for the person they most admire, the Queen always wins. This year, Theresa May, the head of the government, didn’t even make the top five.

In the US, both roles — political/govermental leader and ceremonial head of state — fall to the president. The overlap can get tricky, but most US presidents, on ceremonial occasions, have tried to to avoid politics and to appeal to widely shared values and symbols. Their Christmas messages, for instance, project warmth and hope. Even if they mention problems (the suffering of those who are ill, poor, homeless, bereaved), they emphasize the American spirit that helps us overcome setbacks.

Donald Trump seems incapable of playing that role for more than a minute. The pre-recorded Christmas message from the Trumps (Donald and Melania) stayed true to the genre. But on Christmas day, Trump quickly returned to the spirit of Christmas Trump — belittling and combative. On Twitter, he wrote, “I hope everyone, even the Fake News Media, is having a great Christmas!” And speaking to reporters he concluded with, “It’s a disgrace what’s happening in this country. But, other than that I wish everybody a Merry Christmas.”*

Since 1946, the Gallup Poll has been asking Americans “What man that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?” Nearly every year, the most admired man is the president or president-elect. In the graphic below, the names in red are most-admired men who were not.

(Click for a larger view.)

When a president is not the most admired, it’s because of policy failures (Truman and Korea, LBJ and Vietnam plus domestic strife, Carter and stagflation) or personal failure (Nixon and Watergate). But with Trump, it’s something else. In most of the years in the chart, the president was not really doing anything unusually admirable. The admiration was directed to him not as a person or politician but as the symbol of the nation. For better or worse, he is our Queen. What has kept Trump from the top of the list for both years of his presidency is his unwillingness or inability to play that symbolic role.

(Earlier blogposts about our lack of a Queen are here and here )

* I doubt that anyone was surprised that Trump lumped together this supposed national disgrace and the national holiday. After all, at his very first ceremonial occasion, the inauguration, he spoke of “this American carnage.” (In that speech, he assured us that the carnage would “stop right now.” That was two years ago. Apparently, the carnage has not been stopped but merely transformed into disgrace.)

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