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A message for graduates in the age of Donald Trump

“But we were wrong, graduates. Not about there being people like Donald Trump — because there always have been — but that so many among us could be persuaded to accept his attributes in a leader."

With young men and women marching across so many high school and college stages this month, I thought it would be funny to put together a graduation speech for them consisting solely of tweets from Donald Trump.

It wasn't funny. It was sobering. I quit halfway through.


I've wondered since, though, about the lessons this president is giving to this generation — including one new graduate in my house. So maybe this is the speech we should be giving them before they reach for their diplomas:

“We were wrong, graduates.


“For years, we've talked to you on days like this about the leaders you'll become. We've encouraged a path of integrity and honesty. We've promised rewards will come when you do things the right way.

“Then along came Donald Trump.

“No, this speech is not about our president's prolific lies, or about how he treats others, or even about how he said just recently that he'd listen to a hostile foreign country that had dirt on his political opponent. You know all those things are wrong, yes? That's what we thought people knew, at least.

“But we were wrong, graduates. Not about there being people like Donald Trump — because there always have been — but that so many among us could be persuaded to accept his attributes in a leader.

“And also, that there were so many who needed no persuading.

“That first part is not new, really. People throughout history have ignored their best instincts to justify the worst in others. But we've seen it more acutely in this country the last couple of years. People explaining away the president's destructive language as ‘being rough around the edges.’ People dismissing his dishonesty because he ‘gets the job done’ or ‘says what he means.’

“It's shaken those of us who thought that no matter how fiercely our opinions clashed, we operated within the same moral and ethical guardrails. It's also shaken those of us who just thought we should be decent to one another. But now we are less so. Trump's ethos has seeped into our political and public discourse. We're uglier with each other — liberal or conservative. We're nastier — because the sharper our words, the better we cut through all the noise. It works, after all, for the president.

“So we're worried about you, graduates. We're fretted not only about the leaders you'll become, but the followers you'll be. We're worried not only about the responsibility you have to those who will look up to you, but the responsibility you have to yourself.


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“Mostly, we're worried that what wasn't OK is now acceptable — and that it will be OK with you. One thing we do know on this side of the graduation stage: Each decision, each concession you make is a decision about who you are, and those choices accumulate.

“So what will those be, for you and our country? We're a little less certain these days. The guardrails are shaky. They're being tested each day, in ways we never thought possible.

“We were wrong about that, graduates.

“We hope you prove us wrong again.”

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Peter St. Onge is an associate editor on The Charlotte Observer's editorial board.