Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Emily Robertson, of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”
You say you’re in “the Resistance,” but you’re actually in his clutches. He owns you.
That’s the biggest danger posed by Donald Trump. It’s not just his steady stream of falsehood, hyperbole and hate. It’s that his opponents are imitating him, which is exactly what he wants. And when he wins, everyone loses.
Consider the alleged suicide on Aug. 10 of wealthy accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, which provoked Trump to retweet two absurd posts insinuating former president Bill Clinton’s connection to Epstein’s death. At about the same time, many Trump critics on Twitter were suggesting that he might have played a dark role in the episode.
Most of those posters surely see themselves as fighting the good fight against Trump. But they’re echoing his penchant for wild conspiracy-theorizing — and contributing to the overall degradation of truth in American culture. That’s not resistance; it’s capitulation.
And this isn’t just about some unnamed Internet trolls. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe and MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough have all suggested that there was a dastardly hand behind Epstein’s death.
“You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see an evil coverup to protect lots of powerful men here,” wrote Tribe, who has previously called for Trump's impeachment.
Actually, you do have to be a conspiracist to see that. And publicly announcing it is practicing the Trumpian trick of raising the specter of secret wrongdoing, while offering zero evidence, and waiting to see what sticks.
And when called on it, the conspiracist can always just shrug and say, “I have no idea.” That was Trump’s reply when a reporter asked him directly if he thought Bill Clinton was involved in Epstein’s death.
Or consider Democratic presidential campaigns’ lashing out at the mainstream media. “Democrats’ frustration with the news media boils over,” read a Politico headline last week about criticism of a New York Times headline describing Trump’s speech about the recent mass shootings. “The furious response capped an outpouring of frustration lately from 2020 candidates, Democratic strategists and left-leaning columnists” about news coverage regarding a range of topics, including CNN’s handling of the presidential debates.
Symone Sanders, a senior campaign adviser for Joe Biden’s campaign, this week railed at CNN anchor Brianna Keilar over coverage of a string of misstatements by the candidate, calling the coverage a "press narrative.” Then there was Bernie Sanders’s Trump-echoing complaint this week about The Post for what he perceived as unfair coverage linked to his criticism of Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns the paper. The attack was just a more focused expression of Sanders’s long-standing antipathy for “corporate media” and his campaign’s belief that “the establishment” is working against the avowed democratic socialist.
Democrats, don’t obsess over your media coverage and search for slights or intrigue. Leave that to Trump.
Then there’s the left’s absurd claim that anyone who supports Trump must be a racist, because Trump has said so many racist things. Of course he has. But it hardly follows that every one of the almost 63 million Americans who cast their ballot for Trump in 2016 is also a racist. Nearly one-third of Hispanics who voted pulled the lever for Trump. Are they all racists, too?
As Trump’s poisonous remarks have reminded us, the heart of bigotry is the attribution of a single characteristic to everyone in a group: Consider his claims that Mexican migrants are rapists and drug dealers, or his telling four Democratic members of the House, all U.S. citizens and women of color, to “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came.” But Trump’s opponents make a similar mistake when they slur all of his supporters as bigots, ignoring the differences between them.
Suggest otherwise, and you invite a public slap-down. Witness what happened to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in July after the second round of presidential debates, when she had the courage to say that some people who voted for Trump “weren’t racist.” Instead, she said, they “wanted a better shake with the economy.”
That earned her a big-time cancel from the left online, including a lacerating tweet from New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. “Klobuchar just lost me,” Blow wrote. "If you still support Trump, you ARE a racist. You can dance around it, but I won’t.”
Yes, some people who voted for Trump really are racists. That’s why he’s so popular in the white-supremacist corners of the Internet. But by using that fact to paint all Trump voters as racist, you’re using his playbook, just as you are when floating conspiracy theories implicating him in Epstein’s death. You say you’re fighting back against Trump’s assault on truth and decency, but you’re actually furthering it.
You’re right in his wheelhouse. You can dance around it, but I won’t.