Hillary Clinton is attending Donald Trump’s inauguration tomorrow. John Lewis is not. She is a former first lady who will be accompanying her husband, as well as a former secretary of state; he is a civil rights icon and revered member of Congress. Her decision to attend has garnered sharp criticism from the left; his decision not to attend triggered a petulant and insulting tweet from the president-elect himself.
Who is right? Both are. That is not a mushy middle answer, but a principled one. We must respect the office of the presidency and fight the personality and politics of the president at the same time. All former living presidents who are able are attending the inauguration, with their spouses, as they always do. They are there to uphold the peaceful transition of power in a democratic republic, to witness the new president vowing, before the assembled Congress, the Supreme Court, the nation’s highest military officers, cabinet members old and new, and millions of voters, to uphold the Constitution. President Obama himself, in his farewell speech, shushed boos when he referenced the inauguration, telling his supporters that the “peaceful transfer from one freely elected president to the next” is a “hallmark of our democracy.”
It has never been more important to support America’s institutions than it is now. During the Watergate era, it was those institutions – the press, senators and members of Congress from both parties, the Attorney General, and the courts – that forced a president charged with criminal wrongdoing out of office. The institutions of our democracy triumphed over partisan politics. Today, many of those institutions are far weaker than they were in 1974. No one journalist or newscaster can report “the news” and be believed by the majority of voters on both side of the aisle, as Walter Cronkite once could. Similarly, partisanship in Congress and public distrust of Congress is far greater; the party discipline that principled leaders might once have exercised is much lower. The judiciary is far more politicized today, at least in the public’s eyes. And yet it is those institutions that are our bulwark against unethical, illegal, or even criminal activity by members of the administration. We must revere something beyond political power.
From a more pragmatic point of view, President Trump will be inaugurated. He will appoint a government. That government will begin to make decisions; important decisions that will affect the lives of millions. Isolating members of the Trump administration who are carrying out government business is self-defeating. Above all, it feeds Trump’s narrative that liberal elites are contemptuous of ordinary Americans, widening a division that is already dangerous. Again, to quote President Obama, “[W]e all have to try harder. We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do.” It is no time to build higher walls and dig wider moats.
Yet how can Americans who were and continue to be outraged at Trump’s mockery of handicapped individuals, his dismissal and disparagement of racial and religious groups, his degradation of women, the vulgarity and flippancy with which he treats vitally important issues of national and international politics continue to make themselves heard? They can march as millions of women and men will on Saturday. They can continue to speak out about these issues to Trump supporters, even as many of us urge Republican friends whom we respect to take jobs with the administration, to assure that talented, competent, and principled people fill vitally important jobs. And they can organize groups across party lines to speak out against hate, reaching out to those Trump voters who say they reject Trump’s tactics and rhetoric.
What is happening in our national life is not normal. We cannot allow it to become business as usual. It is possible to hear the message of desperation, rage, and hopelessness being sent by many Trump voters without endorsing the “smash everything” solution they chose. Americans everywhere, regardless of how we vote, must continue to recognize transcendent values: our common humanity and equality, the rule of law, freedom of thought and expression, and the minimum of mutual respect necessary for a diverse people to live together and govern themselves in a free society.
It is thus fine and praiseworthy for individual members of congress to continue to calling the president-elect to account—rejecting the idea that the excesses of the campaign are behind us. As Hillary Clinton watches Donald Trump take the oath of office, she should not forget that he mocked her as Crooked Hillary and disdained her as a “nasty woman.” Nor should she forget that he may have conspired with the Russians to bring her down, even as he promised to lock her up if he were elected. We should all now judge the president by his actions, but we cannot forget his words.
Finally, respect for the office of the presidency also means demanding that the president maintain a degree of gravitas and civility that citizens and foreign nations alike can hold upas a model to their children. President Bill Clinton learned this lesson early on in his tenure when he answered a question about his choice of underwear and allowed reporters to accompany him on his morning jog. What Trump has already done—and what he continues to do—is far worse: Childish insults, wild claims, and blatant lies degrade us all.Those who choose to attend the inauguration do so to try to help restore that gravitas, to remind the American people and the world that the presidency is greater than any one president. They are seeking to strengthen the system itself, the pillars of our democracy. Those who choose to stay away are insisting that the mantle of the presidency is not a cloak of immunity for words and deeds that incite both fear and hatred. They are refusing to allow the kind of politics that Trump practiced to become president to become the new normal. Both positions are justifiable and necessary.