There was a time when Presidents really were tough; they went to battle in the military, exchanged fire in duels, and fought—with fists—to defend their honour. This, really, wasn’t so long ago.
And then there is the 45th President of the United States, who tweeted the following last week:
Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2018
According the New York Times, Trump “was responding to Mr. Biden’s comments on Tuesday about how, if he was in high school, Mr. Biden would “beat the hell” out of Mr. Trump for disrespecting women.”
I’m unaware of Trump’s history of physical conflicts (or that of Biden’s, for that matter—although Biden did receive five student draft deferments during the Vietnam War due to teenage asthma), but it seems kind of pathetic for the sitting president to be threatening the former Vice President when the former is known for his role firing people on a reality television show, not for his fists or his military courage.
We’ve had plenty of tough presidents.
Andrew Jackson fought on horseback his entire life. As a boy of 14, Jackson was too young to formally fight the British, and so he and his brother, Robert, fought them with American irregulars before being captured in 1781: “When Jackson refused to shine one officer’s boots, the officer struck him across the face with a saber, leaving lasting scars.”
It’s uncertain how many duels Jackson fought—he didn’t go around bragging about them—but he had his share. Jackson was described by his contemporaries “as argumentative, physically violent and fond of duelling to solve conflicts. Estimates of the number of duels in which Jackson participate range from five to 100.” A duel, however, in 1806 is certain, which “began with a minor misunderstanding over a horse race and ended in a duel between Jackson and Charles Dickinson. Dickinson, a crack shot, fired first and hit Jackson in the chest. Jackson gave no sign of being hurt but coolly stood his ground, aimed carefully, and killed his foe. Jackson carried Dickinson’s bullet for the rest of his life.” That bullet would cause pain that flared up throughout his life, at times when he was sitting president in the White House. And that duel also had a lot to do with Dickinson’s apparent disrespect of Jackson’s wife, Rachel. That is to say that Jackson was willing to take a bullet for his wife.
Jackson fought in the War of 1812, where he commanded 2000 men for a time; in 1813 and 1814 he “led a force of Tennesseans and allied Native Americans deep into the [Alabama] Creek homeland, where he fought a series of engagements.” All of this led to his being commissioned as “Major General in May 1814 and given command of the southern frontier.”
In 1813, “during a hiatus in his military service during the War of 1812, Jackson fought in a Nashville street brawl against the Benton brothers, Jesse and Thomas Hart. There he took a bullet that nearly cost him an arm.” Jackson’s fury is well documented; his politics are long debated; and his ideas about slavery and race are clear. But Jackson was tough, no doubt.
The lives of former presidents such as Washington, Jackson, and Grant are bloody, brutal and flawed. We can criticise them and debate their morality and question their decency as men. But there’s one thing that can’t be questioned: they were tough. Really tough. What about our current president? Is he tough? Is he secure in who he is? Would he be willing to fight a duel over what matters most to him?
As CNN’s Chris Cillizza writes, “Trump, in his mind’s eye, is also a tough guy – a big, imposing figure who isn’t just some schmuck in a suit. He peppers virtually every speech he gives with tales of his strength, his toughness, his manliness. Other people may make idle threats, but not me, Trump is forever suggesting. You step to me and I’ll knock your block off – or whatever the kids say nowadays.”
It’s 2018, not 1806. There was a time when the American people respected a President for duelling, for his ability to physically defend himself and his honour. Perhaps we might still respect it. But that’s not how to handle oneself anymore. As a man, a president, or a human being. Ultimately, it’s downright pathetic.