February 20, 2020

Trump and Charlottesville – Why the meltdown?

In the aftermath of Trump’s Tuesday press conference at Trump Tower, there have been countless analyses of why he chose to undo his conciliatory condemnation of haters on Monday that sought to ameliorate his bungled statement of Saturday.

Did he calculate that his hard core base wanted him to come out swinging, to endorse Confederate monuments and thumb his nose at mainstream voters and the “mainstream media”? Was he just seeking to offer an unorthodox, revelatory and counter-intuitive take on events that was “ignored” by the media for their malevolent reasons? Or was he channeling the Fox News feed of that morning which had made virtually all of his talking points?

There was endless speculation as to what animated Trump to have a national, live TV meltdown.

The reality that he revealed in his off-script remarks is far more troubling than most of the conjecture—his Tuesday presser confirmed what should have been apparent from the outset of his candidacy—he is incapable of discerning what makes extremists and bigots different from mainstream politicians and most of civil society.

He won’t relegate extremists to the periphery of American politics—as all his predecessors of the past century have done—because he reasons and thinks as extremists do. Their tools are his tools, their warped reasoning is his warped reasoning, their obliviousness to facts, data and truth is mirrored in our commander-in-chief.

As one who has monitored, listened to, had surreptitious contacts with extremists for over four decades, it is clear that Trump’s thought processes are an awful lot like theirs. He may not be animated at base by hate and venom, but how he reasons is chillingly similar to the policy arguments of bigots.

They believe in conspiracies, they are convinced a hidden hand works against them, they ignore and have a contempt for data, truth and civil dialogue and they always blame someone or some group for what ails them or society.

For most of the last half century plus, American presidents, electeds at all levels, opinion molders, and good citizens have intuitively realized that political extremists were different than mainstream politicians on both the left and the right. Civil rights organizations and good people have endeavored to ostracize and relegate to the fringes of society extremists who violate a set of unwritten rules on public conduct and decency.

From the John Birchers and their flirting with anti-Semitism in the 60s to George Wallace in the 70s to Louis Farrakhan more recently (see my op/ed of  9/17/1985 in the Times) to David Duke and Louisiana politic—-policies or comments that flirted with bigotry and stereotypes, even if made in passing, were enough to derail careers, elicit presidential condemnations and generate near universal abhorrence. It was clear to most leaders that overt expressions of bigotry and stereotypes were not acceptable vocabulary of late 20th century America.

Political correctness, with all its frailties, prevailed and there was a perceptible decline in hate crimes, the diversification of corporate boards and of elected officials, the election of an African American by significant electoral majorities and the virtual elimination in public discourse of racial, religious and homophobic epithets and expressions.

This is not to suggest that dog whistle politics with covert appeals to bias and intolerance didn’t happen—indeed they did (e.g. Willie Horton ads); but they were different than vulgar, overt expressions of hostility.

They can be offensive, but they indirectly acknowledge what the ground rules of civility are—no blatant bigotry. There have been occasional accusations made against fervent advocates on the left and the right of being extremists where the label was sloppily and unfairly applied—passion is not same as unreason. Mercifully, those instances have been few and far between.

Into that environment, comes a candidate who has flaunted all the norms of political discourse and debate and who utilizes the very cognitive tools of extremists (Klansmen, neo-Nazis and far left extremists share the methodologies): he traffics in bizarre conspiracy theories, he blithely ignores data, he bullies, attacks and demeans, he threatens, he blatantly lies with demonstrably false assertions on numerous issues, he perpetually claims to be the victim with a designated culprit[s] (other than himself) who is/are always to blame.

Why would he find extremists deserving of condemnation or isolation? He managed to become president despite all those traits— it has all worked for him.

For traditional politicians, individuals or groups that exhibit these characteristics represent flashing red lights—“stay away, extremists, bigots, crazies at work.” For Trump, they are a mirror of his modus operandi—just bit more extreme in policy.

He simply doesn’t see them as qualitatively different than himself—if he’s mainstream then they likely are too. It is not a basic instinct of his to ostracize and reject them. In fact, if they like him (and David Duke and Robert Spencer do) he may just like them back, or at a minimum, he won’t call them out.

The decades-long work of civil rights advocates and good people in society to relegate bigots and extremists to the fringes of our political system is being undone before our eyes. Trump is normalizing and mainstreaming bigots as we have never seen before—he is, once again, unprecedented in his actions.

As Edmund Burke noted, “All that is needed for evil to triumph, is for good men to remain silent” – if we care at all, that’s simply not an option.

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