I love America. You probably do, too. Who wouldn’t love a nation in which an ordinary citizen can call the most powerful man in the land a “bum” and not suffer any consequences?
Of course, LeBron James isn’t exactly an ordinary citizen, and Donald Trump isn’t an ordinary president. As one of the best pro basketball players of all time, James’s wealth and popularity bestow on him a certain impunity.
And while the presidency itself should probably call for some respect, Trump long ago lowered the bar and then destroyed it with so much uncouth name-calling that we’ve almost gotten used to it.
Still, eyebrows were raised recently when Trump used the term S.O.B. to refer to NFL football players who decline to stand for the national anthem. This was too much for James, who tweeted: “U bum … Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
On one hand, this is an unseemly exchange; on the other, it’s great to live in a country where such an exchange can take place.
In civilization’s long history, it was common for rulers to expect humbled obeisance from their subjects. Sometimes tyrants have been elevated to the level of gods, and any criticism was blasphemy.
Often monarchs and despots have implemented lese-majeste, that is, laws that criminalize criticism or insults of the powers that be. For example, defaming the king in Saudi Arabia could result in corporal punishment, including a public beating, and a lengthy jail term.
This summer in Thailand a man was sentenced to 35 years in prison for posting on Facebook comments that were critical of the royal family. In Iran, insulting Mohammed can result in execution, insulting Ayatollah Khomeini can lead to two years in prison and insulting members of parliament or “other state employees” can be penalized by six months in prison, a fine and 74 lashes.
Even in the Netherlands, according to a Dutch news site, in 2007 a man was fined 400 euros for calling Queen Beatrix a “whore.”
I don’t advocate this sort of incivility in our country, but LeBron James’s frank characterization of our president reminds us of the novel elevation of the equality of all citizens that was inherent in our nation’s revolution and founding. No more were we willing to bow and scrape before monarchs or to afford them special status and privilege.
In theory, at least, we prefer presidents with humble origins, rail-splitting, log-cabin types like Abraham Lincoln. We like to imagine that the president is somebody we could sit down with and have a beer.
In practice, we tend to elect the rich, powerful and well-connected, who often come into the office already burdened with a well-exercised sense of privilege. Now, somehow, we managed to elect a man who is about as far from the common, ordinary citizen as is conceivable, whose sense of self-worth and privilege blinds him to both good politics and good policy.
Only such a man could call the White House a dump, and then people his administration with cabinet secretaries — Price, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Zinke, Shulkin — who imagine that their exalted offices include privileges, for example, cushy air travel, not available to the rest of us.
And what has the Trump administration accomplished? Well, not much. One of the definitions of the word “bum” is someone who gets something for nothing, which isn’t a bad description of our current president.
So, LeBron, your candor may have been a little over the top, but you’ve put your well-earned fame to good use. And, frankly, you’ve evaluated the situation rather accurately.
What can the rest of us do about the, uh, “bum” in the White House? Speak up, of course. Be as civil as possible but don’t shy away from the blunt truth. Protest as you see fit. But above all else — this applies to every economic class, race and ethnicity, as well as Democrat and Republican alike — perform the act that a crude, profane, ineffective leader fears above all others in a democracy: Vote!
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.