In June 2009, I spent a week at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, embedded with 19 colonels from all branches of our military, including one special forces officer who was about to deploy for the seventh time. I’d been invited, along with eight other civilians, for an open exchange of views and ideas, and true to their word there was no such thing as an off-limits topic.
We intensely debated the current wars, all religions, torture, Guantanamo Bay, terrorism domestic and foreign, the First and Second Amendments, the staggering responsibilities of the office of the president, and the state of talk news—specifically FOX and MSNBC and radio blusterers like Rush and Imus—as useless info-tainment.
To that point, our first day opened with then-new President Obama speaking live, from Egypt. When his speech ended and the talking heads appeared, the TV went dark. Someone printed out hard copies of the speech, and the colonels around the table pored over every word from their Commander-in-Chief, parsing, circling, underlining, and check-marking. And for the next hours we weighed and debated every possible interpretation and repercussion.
Because words matter. Particularly every word of the President of the United States.
In the weeks since Donald Trump won the White House, many friends who do not obsess over politics have shared some iteration of this with me: “Why are people so wound up? It doesn’t even matter who wins. It would be the same if Hillary had won. Who cares?”
The first time someone asked this, it was like I’d been hit with a stun gun. How can you not care?!
But as we barrel toward Mr. Trump’s January 20 inauguration, I understand the apathy.
I fiercely disagree, but I understand. After a two-year election cycle, and with the president-elect’s constant gaffes and conflicts of interest and attack-first tendencies, and now the camera trained 24/7 on the lobby of Trump Tower and the gold-gilded door of Mar a Lago, reducing our democracy to a reality TV show, our next president and all that comes with him are, frankly, exhausting.
And it turns out, for all those screaming Never Hillary! and Never Trump!, there also exists a very real, not-so-small, third contingent: Who cares.
Who cares if it’s him or her, liberal or conservative, experienced or not, hawk or dove, because Washington D.C. is so incredibly broken, nothing gets done that effects my real, everyday life.
I thought immediately of the 19 colonels I’d met eight years ago at the War College, about how generous and thoughtful they were, about the special forces officer deploying for his seventh tour. And not caring felt like a colossal, disrespecting slap. At them. At their families. At what it means fundamentally to be American.
I dug up my notes from June 2009, and there it was. Day one. President Obama’s Egypt speech. Of the dozens of details the colonels extrapolated, one simple, seemingly throw-away observation stood out: “Words matter. The world is listening. He pronounced all the words properly, and that’s huge.”
Which is why we should care. Words are exactly where our president-elect falls dangerously short. It’s like he doesn’t realize his words, every single one of them, matter.
For instance, he spent the last two weeks taking a victory lap, whipping up his crowd of worshippers. “You people were vicious, violent, screaming!” For what purpose? And he has yet to reach out to the millions of Americans who did not vote for him.
He has not, and may never, hold a press conference.
He has time to complain about a comedy show, but he’s not once expressed concern, nor even mentioned, the women and children being massacred in Aleppo.
He tells us, tells the world, he has no patience for intelligence briefings, no time for information gathered by the men and women who risk their lives—THEIR LIVES— to obtain it.
He carelessly tweets insults and barbs at a Union Leader in Indiana, Vanity Fair, past opponents, China.
He carelessly tweets.
As those dedicated patriots at the War College noted, “Words matter. The world is listening,” and our president-elect’s words–tweets and all–matter.
His words are taken literally and seriously. As they should be. His words can send our children, and our grandchildren, to their deaths in war.
We owe it to each other to remain informed, to use our voices, to protest.