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Why we should invite Donald Trump to Commencement

| Wednesday, January 18, 2017

I’m trying to think who’s under more pressure at ND right now: Brian Kelly or Father Jenkins? One is coming off a 4-8 football season despite markedly high preseason expectations, while the other is confronted with the quandary of either abiding by the Notre Dame tradition of inviting the United States president for Commencement or shirking this tradition to keep perhaps the most polarizing figure in America off our campus.

Let’s say the answer is Fr. Jenkins, only because Brandon Wimbush looks like he may be able to bail out his coach.

My hope is that when the time rolls around for Fr. Jenkins to decide on this year’s Commencement speaker, he applies the same standards of discernment and objectivity as he did for the last sitting president. The right, courageous decision for Fr. Jenkins is to invite Donald Trump, even if it may not be the popular one.

For the record, I did not vote for Donald Trump — or Hillary Clinton, for that matter. I found his rhetoric to be revolting at times, and I question the depth of his understanding of policy, as well as his respect for some of America’s long-standing political traditions.

Regardless, Donald Trump is our president and should be invited to address our graduates.

Many are arguing against a Trump Commencement on the grounds that he doesn’t share some of our University’s core values as evidenced by his rhetoric and stated policies. And perhaps this premise is true. But just eight years ago, we invited a Commencement speaker who also very much disagreed with some of Notre Dame’s teachings and values. President Obama was diametrically opposed to a number of our University’s Catholic tenets, particularly with his stances on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. In fact, Obama’s ideologies were so antithetical to Notre Dame’s that the University eventually sued him over the Obamacare mandate. Notre Dame does not shy away from hosting people with whom our beliefs differ, even if the chasm proves itself so great that we one day must bring such guests to court.

Moreover, in 2009, the University made it clear that Obama’s invitation was more of an endorsement of the office of the presidency rather than of its occupant. Fr. Jenkins defended the Obama invitation saying, “Difference must be acknowledged, and in some cases even cherished … We are called to serve each community of which we’re a part, and this call is captured in the motto over the door of the east nave of the Basilica: ‘God, Country, Notre Dame.’”

These words will ring hollow if we do not apply the same logic to each successive commander-in-chief. We cannot invite Obama and then spurn Trump on the grounds of a dichotomy of values and beliefs, lest we find ourselves splashing in a puddle of hypocrisy.

Furthermore, “God, Country, Notre Dame” demands that we maintain a love of our country and what it stands for. By refusing to invite Trump, our University would be disavowing the president before his first term even starts. Such an attitude is borderline un-American.

We have invited presidents from all over the political and moral spectrum and to now exclude Trump would be a resounding statement of repudiation. In the words of his defeated opponent Hillary Clinton, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” Can’t we be as gracious as Secretary Clinton and offer him our support as he prepares to kick off his presidency, by doing what we have done for every president in recent decades?

Some of our campus’s dissenters, however, may argue that Trump is so egregiously errant on both the political and moral spectrums that even his high office cannot justify his presence on our campus and that we should suspend our long line of amicable, non-partisan outreach to the sitting president.

To these naysayers I would offer a retrospective glance at the last century’s depraved leaders who ought to have been disavowed — ones who inflicted misery on masses of people maliciously and unilaterally. Trump does not belong to the class of the likes of Castro, Mussolini, etc.

Donald Trump, in contrast to such figures, garnered an electoral majority of our nation freely and fairly in a time of peace and prosperity. We ought to respect his election to the Oval Office and any ideological differences which hoisted him there. It is arrogant to assume that Trump’s voters who may so fundamentally disagree with you do so because of moral shortcomings.

I am glad we invited Obama and now we owe the same courtesy to his controversial successor. Now is the time to put political preferences and personal vindications aside and continue our singular and privileged Commencement tradition. Notre Dame should invite Donald Trump, even if the decision invites, in Fr. Jenkin’s own words, a “circus.”

A circus is better than the alternative — a renunciation of Notre Dame’s history of impartial and intrepid political involvement.

Maximilian Towey
Jan. 13

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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