By Thane Rosenbaum
He knows most Americans believe that apologizing is for wimps.
Boasting has always been his trump card. As we’ve been told, repeatedly, in a Donald Trump administration, America will “win again” and everything “will be great.”
He raises expectations without foundational support. Much is taken on faith. His comb over, however, does not shield his thin skin. As his wife, Melania, recently put it, when you attack her husband, “he will punch back ten times harder.”
And, yet, for all that bluster, when it comes to saying he’s sorry, Trump has difficulty opening his mouth at all. Remember the long list of those offended by Trump’s tongue—all still waiting for an apology?
That list includes, among others: John McCain, Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, a handicapped reporter, Jeb Bush’s wife, mother, and brother, “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” followed by Ted Cruz’s wife and every woman who has ever had an abortion and mercifully escaped punishment (that last one, actually, Trump took back—but again, without apology.)
Americans haven’t actually expected Trump to apologize—for anything. It would truly be out of character for a man waging his own crusade against political correctness, someone who has turned a slip of the tongue into political theater.
A savvy self-promoter—always playing to the crowd—Trump may be taking his cue from voters. He knows most Americans believe saying “sorry” is for wimps. We are a nation of many virtues, but public or private apologies are not one of them.
Contrition is best left for the confession, not voting booths. Even our justice system has little use for apologies, and even fewer incentives for offering them. And, yet, apologies restore moral balance to relationships and, in some cases, help make lawsuits go away. So much of the rage that swells our crowded court dockets would be better served by someone simply saying, “I’m sorry.”
Under the law, apologies are treated as statements against interest or admissions of fault. Doing the right thing and apologizing gets punished, which is why lawyers discourage their clients from doing so.
Settlement agreements are negotiated without expressions of remorse; indeed, liability is not admitted at all. When apologies are offered (about as rare as a lawyer declining a fee), they are generally mere halfhearted recitals, and therefore morally meaningless. At other times apologies sound like this: “I am sorry that you feel hurt by what I have done,” which isn’t an apology but an accusation—another insult, added to the injury.
As adults we forget what we teach our children: “Now say you’re sorry and say it like you mean it.”
No wonder auto insurance contracts require drivers to stand by their cars fuming angrily. Those foolish enough to apologize find themselves without coverage. Malpractice insurance for doctors demands the same stoic, unfeeling stance. The one decent gesture patients believe is owed to them never arrives.
The legal system is not entirely to blame. If anything, the law mirrors our broader culture. Americans are a people of defensiveness and denial. We see it in our police, bankers, doctors, and politicians—even our professional athletes. Few are willing to accept personal responsibility, express remorse, and undertake meaningful gestures of repair.
Trump himself is legendary for the number of lawsuits he brings and defends against. He’s no more willing to apologize to a contractor than he is to John McCain.
Other countries do it better, however. Car accidents in Japan result in both drivers rushing to each other’s aid and apologizing profusely. Mortified by the misdeeds of his son, a South Korean president once apologized, tearfully, on national TV.
As a country we have been historically weak on contrition (think slavery and the treatment of Native Americans). And when we see apologies properly bestowed, we tend to devalue them. Both Michael Vick and Don Imus offered up heartfelt apologies for actions that cost them their jobs, and yet the public rewarded them with further ridicule.
Trump’s unapologetic behavior on the stump has been quintessentially American. For this reason, a Trump apology won’t be forthcoming. He can’t and won’t do it, and even worse, he shrewdly believes that many Americans are silently, if not openly, rooting him on.
Real men, real leaders, after all, hold their ground, defend their actions, and deflect blame—making every excuse possible, even behaving like children: “He insulted my wife first!”
This election will be decided on many factors—substance and civility not among them. And if we end up with President Trump, those Golden Rules are likely to be rescinded, too.