Baird Campbell, Anthropology
I have struggled with this prompt for months now. When we originally decided on “Presidential” for the next RFF prompt, I still found it inconceivable that I would find myself writing on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Perhaps ironically, I could not fathom that anyone could consider his candidacy or his behavior “presidential.” By Election Day, Trump had referred to entire nationalities as “rapists,” mocked a disabled reporter, admitted to sexual assault, and proposed a registry of all American Muslims. In the ensuing months, the news has only been darker, with seemingly irrefutable evidence of Russian tampering with the election, and growing suspicion surrounding the Trump campaign’s involvement. But we know all of this. And the prompt is not “Trump.” So here instead, I would like to offer three simple steps to our incoming leader on how to be “presidential.” May they serve him well.
1. Listen – When I say listen, I do not mean simply using your ears. Real listening is not simply waiting to speak again. Listen to the millions of immigrants in this country, documented, undocumented, and dreamers, as they beg for their families to remain intact. Listen to the Black Lives Matter organizers who know in their very bodies that anti-Black violence is not simply a mediatic trend. Listen to the countless Americans—spanning ages, races, creeds, genders, and sexualities—whose lives have been saved by the ACA. Listen to these stories with your whole heart, and accept that no one’s reality belongs to anyone else. A story is not only true if it aligns with your experience. Listen to people as they tell you their lives, and believe them.
2. Feel – I do not mean to imply that you do not feel. You seem to feel deeply, a trait that has no doubt caused you endless grief in the cutthroat, macho environments in which you’ve spent most of your life. Men are not supposed to feel, and while you certainly do not lack bravado, your 3AM Twitter tirades against SNL, Meryl Streep, and Representative John Lewis belie a man who is easily wounded. Please, don’t stop feelings. We need a president who feels deeply, who understands that words have power; but please also understand this is true for everyone. That same dagger you feel when you are attacked—the same mix of embarrassment, hurt, and anger—that’s the same feeling we get when you tell us our very right to live is too expensive, that we’re using the wrong bathroom, that a violation of our bodies is a compliment. We feel these things as deeply as you. The difference is, you will most certainly survive the next four years, Alec Baldwin be damned. The same cannot be said for all of us. So please, keep feeling. But feel for us; feel with us.
3. Act –You will, no doubt, take innumerable actions and decisions over the next four years. Many of these will be mundane or ceremonial (the President is not a Monarch, after all.) I will leave it up to you how to proceed with the annual Easter egg hunt. But other actions will be a matter of life and death. We can already see this in the fight about the ACA. You will, if you repeal the ACA without a better alternative in place, be responsible for the deaths of American citizens. If you do away with DACA as you have promised, you will be rip families apart, some never to be reunited. The job you have signed up for is difficult, and no one has done it perfectly. I am not an idealist; I do not think that you or any President will lead according to my beliefs 100% of the time. But what I do expect, and what I believe is “presidential,” is to act in a way that lifts us all up. This means making sure every single one of us has access to the basic necessities, those necessities—like affordable healthcare, quality public education, and the guarantee of personal safety—that allow us to be great and make the world around us great. It means listening to what we need, feeling with us, and—finally—acting. To me, this is presidential.