OPINION: Weighty Gestures

By on June 14, 2017

The decision to remove presidential photos at town hall was ill-conceived.

President Donald Trump

“All democracies are emerging democracies, in the sense that they are always in danger of sinking into bad habits of thinking and acting.”  – Anonymous

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Mayor Pete Muldoon’s decision to remove President Donald Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s photos from the walls of town hall was a misstep for three reasons, all hinging on the principle of respect for our democracy, elections, and the office of the presidency.

While many, many people despise our current president for what they deem to be deplorable behaviors and actions—which I cannot argue with—Trump is and remains, at least for the time being, the president of the United States. The office itself deserves a certain level of respect, for the sake of democracy. While Muldoon has maintained he would have taken down a photo of former President Barack Obama from the walls of town hall, that too would have been disrespectful to the office of the presidency, regardless of the non-partisan designation of Jackson’s Town Hall.

When Trump won the election in 2016, former Secretary Hillary Clinton and Obama pleaded with the majority of the American public, that was aghast by the result, to respect the tradition of the peaceful transition of power. Obama and Clinton understood our civil democracy is dependent on maintaining the tradition of decorum, and respect for the “ballot” to avoid the “bullet.”

Many things in our democracy that have come to be foundational to maintaining civility are not enshrined in the Constitution but are merely tradition. The president releasing tax returns or allowing press to access the White House are two examples of tradition that we have come to rely on for our democracy; neither are enshrined in any formal laws.

Many of these traditions have been cast aside by the current president, which is why the public must maintain the tradition of respect for the office of the presidency, our institutions, and for our fellow citizens (and voters).

While removing a photograph of the president is seemingly benign, it is in fact highly charged. Leaving the photo of the president on the walls of town hall signals respect for our democracy and the ballot, including the ballot that elected Muldoon, which is something much larger than Trump or his actions. If we, too, disrespect our democratic system, we, too, will be responsible for its demise.

There was an election and Trump won, regardless of how his behavior is viewed; many citizens voted for him. There are appropriate avenues for addressing disagreements with the president and his actions while maintaining respect for our electoral system and voters, and the same holds true for addressing disagreements with our mayor. Muldoon’s decision to uphold the Paris climate accord after Trump’s withdrawal is one such avenue, which I emphatically support and commend. However, removing Trump’s photo from town hall was an inappropriate manner to express disapproval with the man.

Presidents last four to eight years, but the value of our democracy, our elections, and the highest elected office endures. Its respect must therefore be elevated beyond who holds the office.

Many have supported Muldoon’s actions by saying the president, the person, is not deserving of our respect. Respect in that sense is a matter or personal opinion. In that regard, I’m of the opinion that in order to get respect one must give it. But that kind of respect is in terms of politeness or admiration for a person or his actions. Respect in this regard is contractual, as in socially. By removing the photo in which Trump is depicted in his capacity as president of the United States, it is a violation of respect as a social contract, of respect for our democratic institutions. Trump’s photo represents more than the man himself, it represents an entire democratic system, a system that, without respect is eroded.

Finally, removing a photo of the president placed the focus of our local government, press, and now that of the national press on a photo. It is highly unlikely Muldoon could have predicted the reach of this action, but there are far more dangerous threats to our democracy occurring.

There are real risks that the president and his cabinet, not to mention Russia, pose to our democracy and the institutions that protect us. The more division we have within our nation and even our local community, the less able we are to move forward on significant issues. At a time of extreme partisanship, division, and disrespect, pouring fuel on those fires was a poor decision. Perhaps during a period of less political divisiveness, this decision could have gone under the radar, but sadly, that has not been the political climate for the last 20 years.

Much of what we value in our peaceful democracy is not enshrined in the Constitution but is merely tradition that relies upon a contract of respect. At a time when the president is disregarding those traditions, it is even more important that the public, and especially those holding elected offices, remain steadfast in observing and respecting those traditions. Otherwise, we too, are complicit in the dismantling of our democracy. PJH

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