My column last week about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s scheduled performance at the upcoming presidential inauguration has generated a great deal of interest, as well as some confusion.
I’ve received a number of very kind and supportive messages, but I’ve also gotten a lot of emails from people who assume I’m a big fan of President-elect Donald Trump, which I’m not. I did not vote for him, and I appeared on MSNBC three times to denounce him in the strongest possible terms. I did everything I knew how to keep him from winning.
But, alas, he won. I’m not happy about it, but I accept the election results.
That’s a strangely controversial thing to acknowledge. Just admitting that Trump will actually be the president seems to be interpreted as cheerleading for him, which doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Like it or not, Donald J. Trump’s going to be commander in chief.
That’s not praise. That’s just reality.
I see the choir’s participation in the inauguration as a recognition of that reality, not an endorsement of it. They have participated in five other inaugurations for presidents of both parties, according to a news release from the choir, because the peaceful transfer of power is a much bigger deal than any one president and inaugurations are not partisan affairs.
If you’ll indulge me a personal remembrance, Utah former Sen. Robert F. Bennett, my father, encountered a fair amount of criticism back in 2009 when he was front and center at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. At the time, he was the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, which gave him the legislative responsibility to oversee the inauguration of Vice President Joe Biden, according to a previous article in the Deseret News. (Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as chair of the committee, was in charge of the inauguration of the president.)
My father had publicly endorsed John McCain in the 2008 election and campaigned against Barack Obama. But Barack Obama won, and he was going to be president, and it was Dad’s job to help make sure that everything went smoothly. He was highly visible throughout the proceedings, and he cut quite a dashing figure in his white scarf and dark overcoat, and pictures of him circulated far and wide. Friends across the country and even overseas sent me messages telling me they’d seen my father on TV.
However, there were plenty who saw him on TV who weren’t happy about it. After all, the Democrat had won, and they thought it unseemly that a Republican senator could so cheerfully participate in his inauguration. But Dad realized that this was an event that transcended partisanship, and he was right. That was true in 2008, and it should be true in 2016.
Of course, feelings about Trump largely transcend partisanship, too. Many of the angry emails I’ve received insist that he is so uniquely awful that we cannot even acknowledge his presidential authority. They insist that the choir’s singing will “normalize” Trump’s grotesque excesses and give Mormons a license to emulate, or at least accept, his moral failings and his vulgarity. Most messages include some kind of Hitler or Nazi comparison to illustrate how Trump is so far beyond the bounds of decency that he needs to be shunned at every opportunity.
The problem with that adversarial line of thinking is that it ultimately encourages Trump to indulge his coarser instincts and abandon conventional constraints. If Trump truly is a dictator-in-waiting, then he needs to be constrained by the idea that this is a nation of laws, not men. What better way to remind him of that fact than the timeless tradition of an inauguration?
The choir’s participation is a celebration of America, not of any one president. It is also a reminder to its current president that we are a nation built on principles that preceded Donald J. Trump and will — hopefully — endure long after he is gone.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.