October 20, 2018

Trump’s Enablers and the Tragic Fallout

Thirty years ago I authored an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times about “Tolerating Hate.” The piece was written in the days after a visit to Los Angeles by Louis Farrakhan (then, and now, the leader of the Nation of Islam)

The nub of the article was that it was a regrettable message that local leaders of the Black community sent when they endorsed Farrakhan's “economic message” while seeking to separate themselves from his blatant “anti-American, anti-Jewish and anti-white demagoguery.” As I wrote, “one of the basic tenets of our society—one that allows minority groups (religious, ethnic and racial) to exist in a relatively secure and hospitable environment…is…that hate—no matter how neatly packaged, no matter the appeal of its purveyor—-is outside the acceptable political lexicon of our society.

Now comes Donald Trump with vulgarly anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, dystopian and authoritarian populism and the same kind of expediency that excused Farrakhan's bigotry in 1986 has been reborn. Folks are now rationalizing another racist but at a much higher and more disturbing level. 

But, with Farrakhan there were no significant national figures cozying up to him by excusing his hate, it was local office holders worrying about their constituents and not wanting to appear as if they were being told what to do. 

Today there are national leaders from the Speaker of the House (Paul Ryan) to highly regarded senators (John McCain) to former Republican Party leaders (Bob Dole) who swallow hard and toe the Trump line. Speaker Ryan rationalized supporting Trump by ignoring those elements of Trump's message that are offensive: 

I have spoken with our nominee a number of times about our agenda, about conservative principles, and about the policies we need to put in place in order to save the country…..And we have so much more common ground than any other thing. And that is why I'm voting for our nominee.

Get it? I agree with him on “so much” that I can pretend that the bigotry, misogyny, and brutishness aren't there. It was wrong as a rationale for tolerating Farrakhan and how much more disturbing it is as a rationalization for selecting a president of the United States.

What these folks are endorsing, purposefully or not, is the whole “Trump package”—-he will be in our living room every night for four years—his economics, his view on social and religious issues, his mores and his demeanor all come in the deal and serve as the model for our kids. The nastiness, the bullying and the bigotry are who he is, it isn't an aspect that can be turned on and off or ignored.

As David Brooks“> clip (admittedly, not a scientific sampling) reveals a willingness on the part of Trumpites to express rage, racism and misogyny with no concern about it being recorded or broadcast. After his rallies, they appear to feel empowered to act out and demonstrate undistilled bigotry (proud “un-PCness”) that would likely not have occurred just a few years ago. 

As a civil rights veteran of over four decades, I have come to certain realizations about the American body politic and its attitudes on race and diversity. We have attained greater tolerance and acceptance not because we have all become angels and have suddenly taken Biblical injunctions to “love thy neighbor” more seriously than earlier generations of Americans; rather, it is in no small measure because we have learned that a civil society demands that we constrain and contain our darker impulses to dislike, distrust or fear someone who is not like us. 

Political correctness, for all its excesses and sanctimony, has taught us that certain thoughts and inclinations are better kept to ourselves, that we are not free to act them out or verbalize them without repercussions in a civil, diverse and functioning society. 

Trump not only revels in NOT having those constraints, in saying whatever comes to his mind, in ignoring the feelings or character of the recipient of his ire and insults, but he suffers no obvious penalty for his transgressions (unlike several generations of racial and religious offenders—from General Brown to Al Campanis to Mel Gibson). Indeed, he won the Republican nomination with all his warts glowing.

His colleagues simply ignore his outrages as if they didn't happen. And those Trumpian attitudes have now trickled down to the alienated and the angry who figure, “if he can do it and pay no price, I can too.”
There will be lots to answer for in the weeks and months ahead—Trump is Trump, no surprises there; but the absence of spine by so many “'wet noodle' leaders” and their willingness to acquiesce to bigotry is truly shocking. The price our society will pay for undoing decades of work in the civil rights arena is yet to be determined, but it doesn't look promising.