Last month, at the Democratic National Convention, a procession of speakers focused their comments not on Joe Biden the candidate, but Joe Biden the person. One by one, in video messages, they offered their testimony – that Biden is extraordinarily kind, that he is principled in public and private, that he is fundamentally decent.
Does it matter?
On Thursday, in The Atlantic magazine, sources detailed how President Donald Trump repeatedly was unable to grasp how members of the military could serve our country without more personal gain in return. He called the captured and killed “suckers” and “losers,” and he also asked that wounded veterans not be included in a 2018 White House parade. “No one wants to see that,” he said. Later Thursday, more sources confirmed the details to the Associated Press.
This, too, is not terribly surprising. After all, Trump already has publicly mocked military who were captured in conflict, and he has expressed on camera that Paralympics athletes were “a little tough to watch too much.”
Does that matter? In all the calculations we’ll make about candidates this fall, does decency fit in?
This is not an argument – at least not today – about ideology. Neither Democrats or Republicans have a full claim on decency, and despite the disagreements we have as Americans, at least some members of each party genuinely believe their approach to governing is what’s ultimately best for the country and its people.
This is, however, about having foundational concern with the consequences of your polices and actions. It’s about thousands of children being separated from their families and being placed in cages at the border. It’s about stigmatizing people of faith with blanket travel bans.
Decency, in part, is having the capacity to acknowledge the dignity of others. That’s something many of us have difficulty with, but no president has more sweepingly denigrated swaths of people than Trump. From “shithole countries” to Black Lives Matter “thugs” to minorities who want to destroy suburbs by moving there, Trump has consistently stripped the humanity from those he opposes.
That posture – and the president’s relentless and coarse attacks on those who merely disagree with him – have had a profound effect on our country. Americans, already divided, need no more encouragement to see less in each other. But now, disdain is the default tenor in the conversations we have, and bigotry that once lingered in dark corners has become alarmingly open and proud. Make no mistake – we have long been people willing to demonize those with whom we differ, but hate doesn’t flourish so intensely when leaders condemn it. This president too often does not.
Certainly, Joe Biden is an imperfect man and imperfect candidate, and no one should cast their vote based on praise delivered at a political convention. But that same week, a video made the rounds on social media. It showed Biden meeting a New Hampshire boy who, like Biden, had a stuttering problem. Biden was instantly empathetic, putting his arm around the boy, encouraging him and getting a telephone number from his father. “There’s about 25 stutterers I continue to work with,” he said.
Like it or not, when we vote for someone, we give tacit approval to who he or she fundamentally is. And like it or not, the people we elect give license to those who share their values – or lack thereof. But decency in a president is not only about curbing our country’s worst impulses. The best leaders, in their best moments, remind us of who we want to be – or at least who we can be.
Does that still matter? Perhaps more than ever, it should.