HILLSBORO, Ohio - Something I occasionally do is address high school and college students on the subjects of journalism and politics. In most cases, the students are quite liberal, and my presence is designed by organizers to expose them to a point of view that differs from what they otherwise ingest.
When I have mentioned this habit to people familiar with the handful of schools I visit, it has not been unusual for them to reply, "Oh, they'll eat you alive." That has never been the case, in part because my goal is not to alter anyone's political leanings, and in part because every student has unfailingly returned the respect I try to show them.
Of course, any discussion of the news media and politics quickly turns to the topic of President Donald Trump. The left-leaning high school and college students almost all loathe him (as do most of the faculty members). Among their stated reasons are his positions on immigration, climate change, race relations, tax cuts (for the rich, they say) and the environment (particularly his deregulation of the energy industry).
During one such recent visit, students were asked to come up with something good to say about Trump. Reluctantly, some complied. The economy is good, said one. Relations with North Korea are improved, said another. Trump does try to keep his campaign promises, yet another volunteered. By the time students were finished, it was grudgingly acknowledged that although Trump might be bad, he might not be all bad.
And yet, their animus toward the president was mostly unabated, and in further discussions, the real reason became clear. No matter what he might actually accomplish, the president's demeanor is offensive, the students said. His name-calling, his insults, his swearing and his bullying are traits that diminish him daily, as far as they are concerned. Although these characteristics don't faze most of Trump's supporters, they sincerely alienate others, particularly high school and college students - not because they are liberal "snowflakes," but because they have been raised by their parents to be polite and considerate.
A faculty member volunteered that Trump is failing younger Americans because he does not seem to care that, although policies and actions are important, a president setting a good example as a human being is just as crucial. The presidents under which most of today's students came of age - George W. Bush and Barack Obama - certainly exhibited those qualities, most students agreed.
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The Robert Mueller probe is apparently winding down, potentially with no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. At the same time, whatever House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., may say, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., seems to be leading the very definition of a witch hunt. All of these developments and encounters have led me to believe that although Trump may soon get the chance to move past talk of impeachment and accomplish great things, it is unlikely that he will ever be regarded as among our greatest presidents. Such a designation requires not just the approval of supporters, but, as time passes, also detractors.
Trump might well lead the nation to an unprecedented employment and economic boom, develop better relations with age-old global adversaries and (hopefully) save the United States from an unhealthy acceptance of socialism. But his disregard for upholding the inherent dignity of the presidency will never allow those who oppose his policies to eventually admire him personally, as has largely happened with Ronald Reagan.
Does Trump care? Probably not. He is satisfied to be loved by those who love him now. An excellent examination of his various personas, based on his recent Conservative Political Action Conference speech, appeared over the weekend in The Washington Post. Among his obvious identities as enumerated in the article were "entertainer," "rebel," "bully," "fighter" and "pundit." But neither "gentleman" nor "statesman" was among those that could honestly be listed.
A friend of mine who has decades of experience in Republican politics and is not a fan of Trump's has decided that Trump is among the most consequential presidents of his lifetime. But being consequential is not the same as being great, a stature Trump will never achieve, whatever his accomplishments. For many, Trump will forever be defined by the glee he takes in his rudeness and cruelty toward all who oppose him.
Millions of Americans are willing to shrug off Trump's malice, believing it is offset by the needed disruption he is bringing to a stale and corrupted political swamp. But for millions of others, including many among our next generation of leaders, the absence in the White House of someone they can emulate, or teach their children to admire, will leave a lasting stain. Even as they might occasionally like what Trump does, they will forever despise who he is.