Trump Needs some Sage Rabbinic Advicetags: president, Donald Trump
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution for the fall of 2015. His latest book — his tenth — is The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015).
As a presidential historian trained to see historic patterns in inaugural addresses, let me make one thing perfectly clear, as Richard Nixon used to say. With apologies to Franklin Roosevelt’s classic formulation dismissing mass fear, the only thing wrong with Donald Trump’s inaugural speech was the speech itself.
You can imagine Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton uttering at least 95 percent of the words. Line after line, phrase after phrase, could be justified, and often echoes previous addresses – albeit somewhat awkwardly. Who can dislike the hope that: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer?” Who can disagree that “the nation exists to serve its citizens” or that “Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves?”
Even Trump’s most controversial phrase “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” is in line with many presidents who essentially said that in coming to office they were offering “A New Deal” for the “Forgotten People” (Obama, of course would have called them “folks”). True, Trump’s diagnosis was more suited to the 1970s than today, but that is not surprising: many 70-year-olds (let alone Baby Boomers) are still stuck in the sixties and seventies, still fighting those battles, seeing the world as it was, for better and worse.
What was missing from President Donald Trump’s inaugural address [my autocorrect is still resisting that grand title borne by the vulgar reality TV star] was that ineffable quality, that undefinable something, a touch of grace. Trump was who he is, the scrappy New Yorker with Twitterrhea.
The speech was supposed to transition, transform, elevating him – and us – from the political swamps to the peaks of American nationalism, history, destiny. Traditionally, inaugural addresses are like the new presidents, gussied up for the occasion in top hats and morning coats. But while you can dress Trump up, he still talks down. The new commander-in-chief remains the Twitterer- in-chief; he sits in Washington’s chair, but stews in the gutter.
Trump already needs an intervention – a kick in his Brioni pants to become a statesman.
Without grandeur, without moral authority, the president – and the nation – wither.
Jared Kushner should buy his father-in-law a copy of Irving (Yitz) Greenberg’s new book Sage Advice, a modern translation and commentary of the Jewish classic Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. Rabbi Greenberg, whom I have known and revered for over 10 years, is a model academic, rabbi, and activist. His mix of scholarship, spirituality and communal leadership embodies the book’s values and illuminates his interpretation.
Reading this 1,900-year-old book, you’d think it was rushed into print after November 8.
The sages teach: “One who tries to inflate his reputation, loses his reputation.” A wise person “does not interrupt the words of his fellow, and does not rush to reply.... He concedes to the truth. With the boor, the reverse... is the case.” We learn that “one who is easily angered and is difficult to appease, is wicked.”
Greenberg explains: “If you are boorish and crude, you will not realize how roughly you are treating people.”
Wonder “who is strong?” The sages answer: “One who controls his impulses.” Greenberg teaches: “Weak people bear down on others whom they perceive to be weaker than they are.”
The sages celebrate silence as “a fence for wisdom.” Silence “enables listening,” our rabbi notes, while “speaking less means that one is less likely to say foolish things.”
The sages advocate restraint, humility, respect, understanding that less can be more, leading through distance. Underlying this advice is the realization Greenberg articulates when explaining why “keep away from a bad neighbor” that “people often unconsciously imitate the behavior of those with whom they associate” – and whom they follow.
America’s president sets the nation’s tone – his behavior is contagious, for better or worse.
Following the rabbis, Trump should have used his inaugural to mollify the millions who voted against him. He would have been secure enough to ignore Congressman John L. Lewis’s questioning of the election’s legitimacy. And he would not have harmed his reputation by appearing so protective of it that he couldn’t “concede the truth” that more Americans attended Obama’s inauguration.
The sages’ wise if seemingly contradictory advice for Trump’s opponents suggests: “Be yielding to a leader... and receive every man with joy.” Greenberg explains: “Be flexible and bending with a superior, who is more powerful than you.” Accepting everyone “cheerfully... is a form of respecting and honoring the other.”
Yet, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man,” meaning “a mentsch,”a person who does the right thing – and helps others.
Greenberg – whose advocacy for Soviet Jews, Holocaust Survivors and Orthodox feminists (with his extraordinary wife Blu) proves him to be a model mentsch – proclaims: “It is especially urgent to step up in a moral crisis situation when no one is standing up for what is right. Take responsibility.”
In short, opposition should be measured too. Rage backfires; handwringing paralyzes.
“Disputes are rarely a matter of black or white,” Greenberg explains. “Any judge who is absolutely convinced that he is right beyond question in his rulings... is either a fool or a wicked person.”
Centuries before Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the sages understood that a social contact protects people from one another. “Pray for the well-being of the government,” they preached; “for were it not for fear [of its power], every man would swallow his fellow alive.” All Americans must accept Trump as president – respecting authority.
This disciplined humility produces ideological fluidity, rejecting partisans’ polarizing, categorical claims. Such noble suppleness would have pro-Obama Democrats nevertheless critiquing his final, obsessive Israel-bashing.
Similarly, religious Jews weaned on these ethics would critique Trump’s boorishness, even if he supports Israel. Today’s rigid, unforgiving, haughty partisanship repudiates the sages’ modest, self-critical, mutually respectful vision.
Finally, some sage warnings for Trump’s allies – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Be very careful of the governing people,” the rabbis cautioned. “They befriend a person only for their own interests.
They appear to be loving friends when they are benefiting from a person, but they do not stand by a person when he is struggling.”
Trump could betray Israel or break any of his campaign promises as easily as he betrayed Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie, who supported his campaign, only to be abandoned. Trump could “Romney” Netanyahu, courting him, encouraging expressions of fealty, then double-crossing him if Netanyahu ever disagrees with him.
These aren’t predictions, but caveats for responsible leaders in a treacherous world, during unstable times, facing a boorish president.
Ultimately, this sage advice trusts humans as creatures blessed with free will, constantly evolving, changing, choosing and, as Greenberg writes, becoming “even more responsible for bringing God’s love and care to all creatures.” Could a 70-year-old amateur president with gutter instincts transcend his flaws and grow into the grandeur of his new position? Let’s hope.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author of 11 books. Twitter @GilTroy.
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