As I watch the conflict between the president and four minority congresswomen, I know I’ve seen this movie before. The first release was called “2016.” The second was called “Put Colin Kaepernick in his place.”
Here is how the plot goes. Shamelessly, President Trump barrages minorities with racially coded verbal abuse. The language is treated by the White House, in the words of his then-personal lawyer, as “part of the expected fiery rhetoric, hyperbole and opinion that is squarely protected by the First Amendment.” Yet even if such language is protected by law, it is still shameful to use it. Trump can wield the weapon of racially coded language only because his superpower is shamelessness.
Predictably, his shameless speech provokes outrage. This is not an accident. It is what Trump intends.
Equally predictably, the white knights of outrage launch their counterassault catapults toward an overbroad range of targets and inflict extensive collateral damage.
Exhibit A: white knight Hillary Clinton’s invention of the category of “deplorables” for Trump supporters. When the white knights assign to all Trump voters the shamelessness that is accurately attributed only to Trump himself, they piss off those voters.
Only one person has the true, complete superpower of shamelessness and that is Donald Trump. Most people who voted for him did so because they saw him as an instrument for getting conservative Supreme Court justices, or a tool for diminishing China, ora way to stick a thumb in the eyes of snobby elites. You might disagree with their judgment about the trade-offs, but they shouldn’t be perceivedas mini-Trumps. They’re generally not.
Most Americans are good and decent people. Recovering this belief is the great gift the Russians gave me with their election meddling. I wrote a lot of opinion pieces during the 2016 lesson that criticized candidate Trump, and so I got some incredibly nasty stuff in my inbox. It was affecting my feelings about my fellow Americans. At the time, I had a friend with tech expertise do a network analysis for me of the incoming slime — and to my surprise, I found that a lot of the nastiness directed at me was coming from Europe. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. Now, I understand that it must in some fashion have flowed from the Russian interference efforts and from a narrow subset of Americans who were trying to stir up division and hatred. Now I’ve gotten back my loving relationship to my fellow citizens. Thank you, Russia! Thank you, Mr. Mueller!
It’s true that various surveys find that extreme opinion is on the rise in our country, but those who hold extreme views are still a very small minority. So let me say it again. The vast majority of Americans are good and decent people.
Unfortunately, when good and decent people who voted for Trump after having weighed the trade-offs are tarred with the same brush his adversaries apply to him, their anger activates. We all know what it feels like to feel falsely accused. This again is what Trump is counting on.
He knows that if he provokes outrage, his opponents will over-target, thus generating anger that will drive support to him. His assault on Kaepernick did drive down public affection for NFL leaders, led to a reduction of freedoms for NFL players, and won support for himself.
In Errol Morris’s very fine but undistributed film about former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, “American Dharma,” Bannon reflects on the 2016 campaign. A standout moment for him was Hillary Clinton’s speech in August when she said Trump’s success reflects the rise of a new movement, “the alt-right.”
In the film, Bannon says that he watched that speech and thought: “She’s walked into the trap. If she preaches identity politics and we preach populism and jobs and bringing manufacturing jobs back, we’ve got her.”
Trump’s assault on the congresswomen is a trap. Right now, too many of us are falling into it.
We have to change the script. Here’s an alternative: (1) Don’t be trapped. Don’t attribute Trump’s views to anyone other than him. (2) Affirm your love of country and remember that to love our country is to love one another. (3) Focus on the specific harm Trump is doing to a specific person; don’t widen the lens, however tempting that may be. Trump is putting one specific person, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), at real risk. This is abominably irresponsible. About that, there is only one thing to say: “Back off, man.” (4) Ask everyone who loves this country to help protect the specific person who is being put in danger regardless of what you think of her opinions.
And following that script, we can rise to one another’s defense, for love of country.