Political leaders are teachers. This is true even if they do not intend it. They are role models, both good and bad, for the public. Political leaders also educate the public about specific policy issues and matters of national concern.
Healthy societies produce healthy leaders; unhealthy societies produce unhealthy leaders. In that way, the leader as a type of teacher is a way of judging the values, collective beliefs, and future direction of a community. Several American presidents, for example, were former schoolteachers. Of note, President Lyndon Johnson was a public school teacher in rural Texas. His experiences there inspired him to support such landmark legislation as Project Head Start.
As exemplified by their recent behavior, President Biden and Donald Trump are two very different types of leaders and teachers.
Biden is a humane teacher who values reason, critical thinking, intelligence, human empathy, and patience. He believes in American democracy and in the nation’s ability to rise to the challenges we are facing through dialogue and compromise. Last week, President Biden channeled those values and beliefs in a type of national civics lesson during a speech marking the creation of a library honoring Senator John McCain at Arizona State University. Biden said the following about the democracy crisis:
“I have made the defense, the protection, and the preservation of American Democracy the central cause of my presidency.
“From Gettysburg to my Inaugural Address, to the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and Union Station in Washington, I’ve spoken about the danger of election denialism and political violence and the battle for the soul of America.
“Now today in Phoenix, Arizona, at an institute devoted to the defense of democracy named in honor of a true patriot, I’m here to speak about another threat to our democracy that we too often ignore: the threat to our institutions, to our Constitution itself, and the very character of our nation.”
“As I’ve always been clear, democracy is not a partisan issue. It’s an American issue.
“We know how damaged our institutions of democracy — our judiciary, the legislature, the executive — have become in the eyes of the American people, even the world, from attacks within, the past few years…
“We should all remember: Democracies don’t have to die at the end of a rifle. They can die when people are silent — when they fail to stand up or condemn threats to democracy.”
The president also focused specifically on the threat to democracy represented by Donald Trump, the MAGA movement and ascendant neofascism:
“But there is something dangerous happening in America. There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy. The MAGA Movement.
“Not every Republican – not even the majority of Republicans – adhere to the extremist MAGA ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with Republicans my whole career. But there is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA extremists. Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American Democracy as we know it.”
“As I’ve said before, we’re at an inflection point in our history – one of those moments that only happens once every few generations. Where the decisions we make today will determine the course of this country – and the world – for decades to come.
“So, you, me, and every American who is committed to preserving our democracy carry a special responsibility. We have to stand up for America’s values embodied in our Declaration of Independence because we know MAGA extremists have already proven they won’t. We have to stand up for our Constitution and the institutions of democracy because MAGA extremists have made clear they won’t. History is watching. The world is watching. Most important, our children and grandchildren are watching.”
In total, Biden’s Arizona speech is one of the most important in American history and will be studied in the future (assuming that Trumpism and neofascism do not triumph and then install an Orwellian Thought Crime Regime) as a landmark document in the country’s struggle in the 21st century to remain a democracy.
The second lesson was President Biden’s Sunday interview with ProPublica, during which he continued to teach about the fragile nature of American democracy and what must be done to preserve and protect it. Biden explained to ProPublica that Trump and the MAGA movement are enemies of democracy who are willing to do anything – including using violence – to get and keep power:
I think that this is the last gasp, or maybe the first big gasp, of the MAGA Republicans, and I think Trump has concluded that he has to win. And they’ll pull out all the stops.
President Biden also shared his worries about a Supreme Court that is dominated by right-wing extremists who place party and power over the law, the Constitution and the well-being of the country. Biden also emphasized the dangers that disinformation and conspiracy theories and other lies that are circulated online (and especially throughout the right-wing propaganda echo chamber) represent to democracy and civil society. He also cautioned against how third-party candidates in this time of democracy crisis could empower Donald Trump and the MAGA movement’s return to the White House.
During his ProPublica interview, President Biden also explained why he is the best option to defeat Trump and the Republican fascists and MAGA movement in the 2024 Election:
“I’m not the only Democrat that can protect it. I just happen to be the Democrat who I think is best positioned to see to it that the guy I was worried about taking on democracy is not president.”
President Biden also offered this important teaching about how a healthy democracy and civil society are dependent upon respectful discourse across lines of reasonable political difference:
Get in a two-way conversation. I really do believe that the vast majority of the American people are decent, honorable, straightforward. … We have to, though, understand what the danger is if they don’t participate.
By comparison, Donald Trump is a type of cruel teacher, a political sadist, a fascist and a demagogue, who teaches through meanness, lies, bullying, and threats of violence and by rejecting reason, intelligence, dialogue, the facts, hard work, kindness, goodness, empathy, reason and contemplation. Trump’s “teaching” style is in keeping with how mental health professionals have warned that he has a primitive personality, a diseased mind, and a pathological character.
In his role as a type of evil leader-teacher, Trump recently threatened the life of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley. Trump also recently went to a gun show in South Carolina and posed with a pistol that was engraved with his image. Trump is continuing to publicly support the Jan. 6 terrorists. Trump is also escalating his threats against Special Counsel Jack Smith, Attorney General Garland, and the prosecutors, attorney generals and other members of law enforcement who are attempting to hold him responsible for his obvious crimes. Trump and his followers are also intimidating and harassing prospective jurors, witnesses, and members of law enforcement that the ex-president has designated as “enemies” of the MAGA political cult and neofascist movement.
Trump is also giving a master lesson in what political theorists and philosophers describe as a type of “anti-politics”: he is teaching his followers (and the American people) that the rule of law, the Constitution, democracy, and civil society are not to be respected or have any legitimacy. Instead, Trump and his MAGA movement are the real authorities and power in American society. To that end, right-wing violence, and corrupt power – which are antithetical to a healthy democracy – are to be normalized. This would mean the end of America’s multiracial pluralistic democracy.
As seen on Jan. 6, and in mass shootings and other violence targeting Black and brown people and other “enemies” of the MAGA movement and white right, assassination attempts and threats against President Obama and President Biden, a recent apparent politically motivated shooting by a MAGA cultist in New Mexico, a Republican fascist party that is increasingly extreme as it wholeheartedly rejects real democracy, and a social environment where right-wing violence and terrorism are now the greatest threat to public safety, Trump’s teachings and example(s) are being enthusiastically embraced by his tens of millions of followers.
The American people, the news media in their role as the Fourth Estate and guardians of democracy, and the responsible political class and other elites have a choice to make as the 2024 election rapidly approaches. Will they listen to and follow President Biden’s teachings and examples about the importance of engaged citizenship, democracy, and freedom, or will they instead choose to embrace Donald Trump and his cruel teaching and fascism, authoritarianism, demagoguery, and other anti-democracy and anti-human values? The future of the country depends on that choice.
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