During his televised address to the nation last Tuesday night, I found myself agreeing with President Trump. We do have “a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul” on our southern border, and the people who are suffering there deserve our compassion.
Jarringly, it is the president who has manufactured their plight. Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, he has demonized immigrants in the most lurid terms, and last Tuesday night was no exception. He repeated a range of falsehoods about immigrants, drugs and security threats that have been flatly disproven.
Previous presidents have used Oval Office addresses to speak openly with Americans about major national or international events. In 1957, President Eisenhower announced his decision to desegregate Little Rock’s public schools using an Oval Office speech. Five years later, President Kennedy spoke to the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis. And more recently, President Obama addressed the country about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and again about the end of the Iraq War.
In each of these cases, a president chose the elevated setting of the Oval Office to speak to his fellow citizens about real challenges and hard truths facing the country.
By contrast, President Trump’s speech was designed to foment fear. Yes, we need to continuously upgrade and improve border security, and Democrats have done and will continue to do so. But the experts are clear: there is no national security crisis on our southern border. There is, however, a humanitarian crisis of the president’s own making — and a wall won’t fix that.
Not only did the president offer a series of baseless claims about our border security; he also used the speech as a fundraising vehicle for his re-election campaign. Before the speech, the president sent out an email asking supporters to contribute to an “Official Secure the Border Fund.” Afterward, he quickly sent out a second appeal to those who hadn’t contributed. Journalists noted that the “Secure the Border Fund” was simply another name for the president’s campaign treasury.
In all, the 10-minute address was a historic misuse of that awesome rhetorical setting — a setting of the highest authority.
In a secular democracy like ours, the Oval Office might be the closest thing we have to a sacred space. That sanctity is built on trust — on an understanding that when our president addresses us, he or she will make an honest effort to call upon us in times of profound challenges. The presidency is a heavy burden, and when leaders bear their responsibilities well, they earn our deepest respect. When they sully the Oval Office, however, we too feel sullied — and we look forward to the day when we will restore the dignity of that place.