Whenever Donald Trump practices diplomacy, it’s hard not to recall Will Rogers’s description of a fellow strumming on a ukulele – you can’t tell whether he’s playing it or just monkeying around with it.
One day the president seems intent on pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war; the next day he’s trading love notes with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un.
Is Mr. Trump crazy? Or is he crazy like a fox?
There’s no question that the president has managed to alienate half the country, including many from his own party, while leaving leaders around the world twisting in the wind over his apparent instability. On the other hand, the economy is surging and unemployment has plummeted. He’s cleaning up the VA while implementing the most progressive prison reforms in memory. He even seems to have Chinese leaders on the ropes, contemplating changes to their unbalanced trade policies.
Sometimes, his outrageous assertions and reversals seem calculated to throw opponents off balance and gain leverage over them. Sometimes, he just seems to like throwing tantrums. Does anyone know for sure? Does the president know himself?
Given his demonstrable accomplishments, perhaps Mr. Trump deserves the benefit of the doubt. But even if we concede that the president is getting the job done, what are we to make of a leader whose style grates against our sensitivities and whose behavior regularly defies rational explanation?
History and tradition offer some perspective.
BY ANY OTHER NAME?
In one of the most dramatic episodes from the Book of Genesis, the Jewish patriarch Jacob is accosted by a man – identified by the sages as the guardian angel of his wicked brother, Esau. Locked in combat, the two wrestle deep into the night.
With the approach of dawn, the angel declares that Jacob will no longer be called by his old name, but rather by the name Israel. From that point forward, scripture uses both names, switching back and forth between them with no obvious pattern.
The name Israel derives from the Hebrew root sar – meaning noble. It describes the moral and spiritual nobility to which the Children of Israel would aspire in their mission as servants of the Almighty.
The name Jacob, however, derives from the word akbah – meaning bent or crooked. Considering the scriptural and rabbinic characterization of Jacob as a man of purity and truth, how can we explain why his name means precisely the opposite? And how can one person have two names with contradictory connotations?
THE DECEPTION OF APPEARANCE
In times of challenge, leaders have to make seemingly impossible decisions, sifting and processing massive amounts of information while evaluating the conflicting opinions of experts and advisors. They are often lambasted and reviled for those decisions no matter how they choose.
Secretary of State William Seward was mocked for his folly after negotiating the purchase of Alaska in 1867. A century later he was hailed as a visionary. The global community castigated Menachem Begin for authorizing the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981. A decade later, world leaders applauded the decision that denied Sadaam Hussein access to nuclear material. Harry Truman left office with the lowest approval rating in history. Now historians consistently rank him among the five greatest presidents in American history.
Doing the right thing often requires doing the unpopular thing. Great leaders possess the clarity and courage to buck popular opinion, take controversial stands, and project an unyielding persona when conventional wisdom cries out for compromise or compassion.
In a crooked world, acting with nobility is often met with accusations of corruption or intransigence. The name Israel reminds us to strive for the ideal of refining our inner character and projecting a persona of nobility. The name Jacob reminds to acknowledge reality, to never compromise our values despite the indictment of crookedness from those who lack depth and foresight.
Some leaders buckle when they should stand firm. Some leaders press forward when they should retreat. Only through the lens of history can we determine which leaders are truly great. And history takes a very long view.
So the jury is still out on President Trump, and it will continue to deliberate long after he has left the White House.
In the meantime, we would do well to reflect upon King Solomon’s warning, It is not good to judge appearances, for a man will sin for a piece of bread.
We see only what resides on the surface. The saints of today might sell their souls tomorrow for the most paltry morsel; the blackest hearts might be revealed as pure in the light of a new day.
The best we can do is hold ourselves accountable, to speak civilly, reserve judgment when we lack clarity, and ponder with deliberation before we act. By summoning our own better angels, we can hold back the tide of disintegrating moral standards and, instead, contribute to a culture of respectful collaboration.
This is the formula for preserving the ideals on which civil society is founded, and the mindset with which a nation established on the principles of liberty and justice can endure.