Earlier this week, we celebrated the federal holiday called Washington’s Birthday. (There is no federal holiday called Presidents’ Day .) Along with Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., he’s one of only three people whose birthdays we mark with a national holiday. In recent years, many historians—mostly from the left—have tried to discredit Washington and the American founding as a whole. In my judgment, many such people get things wrong, but that’s another matter altogether. Because, for me, it isn’t Washington’s legacy that made him a great man, but rather his own realization that the new country shouldn’t be about him at all. And this is a lesson that I think has particular significance in light of the current state of American democracy and the behavior of another former president.
Let me explain: I’d argue that the key moment in the American revolution took place in 1783 when Washington handed in his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The moment isn’t forgotten exactly—there’s a painting of it by John Trumbull  in the Rotunda of the Capitol—but it isn’t as prominent in history books as I think it should be.
But in order to appreciate its significance, one has to realize the situation then: With a big assist from France, Washington had just won American independence and was universally popular. Under the Articles of Confederation, the weak federal government—and most of the state governments—were more-or-less bankrupt. A non-trivial portion of the population hadn’t even supported the Revolution. The most popular and, in the short term, efficacious thing that Washington could have done would be to set up a military dictatorship. Congress would have consented easily and the white men eligible to vote at the time would have approved overwhelmingly. In fact, nearly all violent revolutions before and since devolved into what were military dictatorships in fact, if not always in name.
Instead, Washington walked away from the military to leave his future role in the hands of elected governments. He realized he was both the indispensable man of the American Revolution and that doing the most popular and decisive thing he could have done in 1783 would have destroyed democracy. He made the same type of choice when he decided not to run for a third term in office even though he almost certainly would have won. Washington was neither a saint nor a particularly modest man. He owned slaves, made military mistakes and was sometimes vain. But he created the American democratic tradition by making it clear that even he was not above the law. He didn’t leave public life after handing in his commission—he went on to chair the constitutional convention and serve as the first president under the Constitution. But even in so doing, he made it clear that he was an ordinary, flawed human being and not an object of worship. And this—more than any myth about a cherry tree, any military victory, the decision to free all the people he enslaved in his will or the achievements of his time in office—is what made him a truly great man.
And Washington’s example stands in sharp contrast with the man who just left office. Not only did Donald Trump incite a violent insurrection against the constitutional order rather than relinquishing power voluntarily, but he also seems to have no sense of his own limitations, flaws or anything greater than himself. Whether he calls himself a “stable genius ” or lies repeatedly and publicly about the election he lost and his checkered (at best) business career, Trump seems to consider himself a sort of God King. Worst of all, he seems to have the support of a good portion of the political party that I’ve been a member of almost my entire adult life in doing this. I’m particularly distressed by polls showing that former President Donald Trump is considered “honest and trustworthy ” by an overwhelming part of the Republican base and the most popular figure in the party by a longshot.
Whatever his merits as president—and R Street research found significant things to like in some Trump policies and serious flaws in others—there is simply no legitimate way to argue that Donald Trump is a model of integrity. In fact, when it came to the election, he was not truthful or honest about anything  of consequence. Lying, by itself, doesn’t make him a bad president: Two of the 20th century presidents I admire most, Franklin Roosevelt  and Ronald Reagan , also lied a lot. But lying in order to overthrow democracy is a far worse sin than anything either of them committed and makes Trump’s conduct on January 6th much worse.
R Street stays out of politics—that is to say, questions of who in particular wields governmental power. But we are passionate about the institutions, ideals and norms that underlie good government. As we did when Trump incited the insurrection, we need to call out people and behaviors that challenge these things  while praising those who strengthen and uphold them. This doesn’t mean any immediate changes in our scope of work or who we work with. But, as work evolves throughout our portfolios, we’ll certainly be taking a close look as to how (and if) our work can help to uphold the norms that Washington helped to establish and Trump so egregiously violated.
Image credit: turtix
- “Presidents’ Day”: https://friendsanddonors.cmail19.com/t/i-l-mdrirdy-whhuudjdu-y
- “painting of it by John Trumbull”: https://friendsanddonors.cmail19.com/t/i-l-mdrirdy-whhuudjdu-j
- “stable genius”: https://friendsanddonors.cmail19.com/t/i-l-mdrirdy-whhuudjdu-t
- “honest and trustworthy”: https://friendsanddonors.cmail19.com/t/i-l-mdrirdy-whhuudjdu-i
- “not truthful or honest about anything”: https://friendsanddonors.cmail19.com/t/i-l-mdrirdy-whhuudjdu-d
- “Franklin Roosevelt”: https://friendsanddonors.cmail19.com/t/i-l-mdrirdy-whhuudjdu-u
- “Ronald Reagan”: https://friendsanddonors.cmail19.com/t/i-l-mdrirdy-whhuudjdu-o
- “we need to call out people and behaviors that challenge these things”: https://friendsanddonors.cmail19.com/t/i-l-mdrirdy-whhuudjdu-b