Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics. But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of our public discourse.
We can easily trace the American penchant for latching on to conspiracies and fantasies back to the puritans, who sought to purify the society by casting out “witches.” The temptation to demonize groups and thereby convert our own problems and frustrations to an external source is woven deep into the American tapestry. McCarthyism set lose an even more destructive wave of fear feeding off of the vague threats posed by the rise of communist parties in the old Soviet Union, China and other sections of Southeast Asia.
Since then, Americans seem especially susceptible to finding secret and nefarious activities in African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Hispanic Americans, “liberal” college professors, secret societies, “the liberal media,” “Mexicans” Muslims, federal employees and the “deep state.” These and other softened forms work as a kind of code. The mere mention in the presence of the right group—in both senses of that word–is enough to confirm the alleged threat, no evidence needed. Defining a nation’s problems in terms of “outsiders” is not unique to the United States. We are just the leading example.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics. But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of public rhetoric, partly through the conveyance of gleeful personal attacks using these terms. He is his own touring circus of verbal abuse, for example, musing lightheartedly about a “liberal media” reporter recently shot in the leg, or a woman whose appearance is not up to his standard, or the bogus medical issues of opponents, or the “low ratings’ of opponents, who are supposed see that taunt as some kind of meaningful measure. And on it goes.
Most presidents have gently chided their political opponents, but they knew their mandate to cultivate inclusion was more important. And political liberals aren’t beyond finding their own demons. But none have allowed the world to be so completely shaped by an illusory museum of misfits that only exist mostly in the MAGA-fevered brain. The fact that so many supporters can tolerate this downward street fight naming is disappointing and ironic coming from a man who found ways long ago to stay far above the streets used by ordinary folks.
The explanations that kept multiplying affirmed what so many believe about the President: that he is preoccupied by the wrong things.
Recently President Trump was photographed leaving a graduation event at West Point gingerly descending a long ramp. And, as everyone knows, he looked a lot like our grandfathers teetering along a sidewalk after a bad ice storm.
Social media had a field day with the images. Trump’s baby steps made the oversized man with an even larger ego look uncharacteristically frail. And it created a lesson about what a perfect presidential response could be.
In American society it is almost never permissible to use age as a reason for any limitation. There is shame in accepting that we’ve been changed by time. Most public figures would laugh off the incident with grace, perhaps acknowledging (if they did at all) that ramps without rails can be slippery. (The sloping walkway in fact had a rough-surface grip on its surface about every two feet.)
End of story. . . but not quite.
In his defense, he was probably right to mention that hard leather shoes can act like deflon on a smooth painted surface.
End of story . . . but not quite.
Two perfect responses down. Any more begins to be less, including over ten minutes of defensiveness at his political rally in Tulsa. This vaudeville act was a grotesque overreaction from a President of the United States, given the medical, financial and social crises wracking the country.
End of story . . . but not quite.
He again addressed the same moment at West Point with the press in a later meeting.
Given the nation’s crippling problems, none of this really matters as substance. But it does signal a character problem. Many in their seventies may know the health costs of falling and breaking a hip can be far-reaching and even life-threatening. He had two reasonable explanations for caution. That was enough. His continued reference to the event reminded us that the appearance of frailty mattered too much. It fed the widespread view that the President’s rhetoric only makes sense to him if it involves self praise and a blustery persona more appropriate to professional wrestling than political leadership. So the explanations that turned into too many began to reaffirm what so many believe about the President: that he is more concerned about appearances than substance. And when protests of innocence boomerang, they end up as affirmations through denial, communicating to almost everyone that a person has lost awareness of what he is signaling.