President Donald Trump continues to tip-toe through rhetorical minefields, stepping on the occasional Claymore. He did it again in an interview broadcast over the weekend.
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly wondered about Trump’s apparent affection for Russia and its president. Vladimir Putin is a killer, O’Reilly said.
“We’ve got a lot of killers,” Trump responded. “What do you think, you think our country’s so innocent?”
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The remark prompted anguish from politicians of all stripes, but particularly from some conservatives who objected to Trump’s apparent suggestion of moral equivalence between the United States and Russia.
“Trump attempting to lump in the United States with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is flat out pathetic,” Jay Caruso wrote for RedState, a conservative blog.
Conservative writer John Podhoretz, in a tweet: “I can’t tell you how disgusting I find Trump’s comment to O’Reilly. I have no words.”
As it happens, though, the president has hit a nerve that deserves some exploration.
No serious student of American history doubts there are troubling chapters in the nation’s past. Slavery, first and foremost — America’s original sin. But the forced evacuation and eventual extermination of some Native American tribes were part of a sad era as well.
Bloody labor disputes. Brutal prisons and jails. Forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” Religious persecution. The internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Lynchings. Battlefield atrocities. The list goes on.
This only proves that Americans, like all humans, have faults — moments when they fall short of their own ideals. The United States, as Trump observed, isn’t innocent.
What he fundamentally misses, though, is the other part of the equation, the part that makes Americans different from the Russians, Islamic terrorists and other dictatorial leaders.
Yes, Americans do bad things. In almost every case, though, the country tries to learn from those errors, make amends if possible and then work to ensure they don’t happen again.
Sure, progress is slow and uneven. We don’t always get there quickly, or at all. Sometimes we don’t agree on what to do. But we try.
The exact opposite plays out in countries such as Russia, or wherever dictators rule. The past is rewritten. The present is hidden. Dissent is prohibited. Reporters are punished. Errors are ignored. Reality is denied.
What is deeply disturbing about the president’s affinity for Putin is the apparent embrace of the Russian approach: Trump’s White House seems comfortable with denying reality, while utterly failing to learn from the past.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to get this, as do most mainstream Republicans and Democrats.
“I’m not going to critique the president’s every utterance, but I do think America is exceptional,” he said on CNN Sunday. “America is different. We don’t operate in any way the way the Russians do.”
Many conservatives are fond of calling America exceptional. It is, but not for the reasons they believe.
Exceptionalism isn’t an excuse. It’s a goal: Each day we try to perfect our Union, even after our mistakes. That effort, enshrined in our Constitution, is what makes us exceptional.
Trump shows no signs of understanding this yet, and that is troubling.