Well, here we are. After more than a week of pounding on a moribund equine it seems that as a nation we’ve managed to misdirect a substantial amount (but not all) of our collective attention, raising the likelihood that roughly fifty percent of the nation will see an increase in their atenolol dosage some time in early November,2020. The error in question is the obsession with the specific verbiage of the President’s most recent (better hurry) debacle. I would have hoped that the focus would have landed on the more troubling issue of the mindset the entire episode revealed. This is the part of the article where a responsible writer would take a moment to offer a capsule summary of the event. If you need me to do that my advice would be to take it slow and be careful to hydrate. Emerging from a coma is an incremental process that can’t be rushed.
I first heard the story at the gym, the morning it started making the rounds. Taking a steam after working out, a guy who I’ve chatted with on numerous occasions filled me in on the details. He mentioned the phrase “shithole”. A lot. Having already agreed with him on the (I thought) larger point of the ugly bias the statement indicated, I finally asked him why the wording was such a big deal to him. He stared at me in a way usually associated with an epidemiologist discovering a particularly nasty strain of pathogen. He then went over the implied bigotry of the statement. I reminded him we had already agreed on all of that. I just thought fixating on the word was a mistake in the long run. He repeated everything he’d just said concerning the ethnically oriented unpleasantness that seemed to be driving Mr. Trump. Remembering my previous work with the cognitively challenged (I have no professional experience in this area)I agreed again, adding that I thought that fixating on a single word struck me, for a variety of reasons, as a potential mistake. I began to explain myself when, flashing a smile that made me think he was wrestling a gas pain into submission, he excused himself and left. Which is okay. And a shame. In the past we’d had a few interesting exchanges; sometimes in agreement, sometimes not. Always cordial. I have a feeling that’s over now. Not that it should matter to anyone. The more important thing appears to be that because of a puerile fascination with a common crudity we’re creating an eventual escape hatch for POTUS 45. Hyperbolic public displays, inflammatory use of social media, mud flinging dishonesty. In case anybody’s forgotten, those are all core competencies for our current chief executive. Living in that realm means ceding home field advantage.
Although I’ve written empathetically about Trump voters in the past I was not one myself. I didn’t vote for Clinton either which has left me in a generally disgusted but non-partisan place for the past year. Certainly I could (depending on the replacement) be very happy to see a different face at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. after the next election, and I have to say I don’t think the childish display I’ve seen in the last nine days is going to help in that regard. Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into some irritatingly adult plea to examine the valid underlying reasons for a more skills based immigration policy. Kay Hymowitz (City Journal) and Rich Lowry (National Review, New York Post)have written in that vein recently, doing the subject more justice than I ever could. This is just a simple reminder from someone else who’d love a constitutionally approved regime change. Let’s stick to the substance and (painful as it might be) avoid the distraction of public venting over the president’s more moronic rantings. Regardless of how much you might think you have a handle on it, it’s going to go south at some point. What begins as a controlled fury with the outrage du jour always morphs into a boil-over moment worthy of Ralph Kramden telling Alice her mother is not welcome in their home. The racism that we can reasonably infer from his most recent gaff is a winning point. Bleating on endlessly about the profanity might easily end up being a way to let somebody feel better about digging in their heels and voting for him again.
It’s easy to forget, but when we fixate on the language a politician used (in a non-public venue) we’re making a claim on our own past behavior and a commitment to future actions which are extremely unlikely to have been or become true. If you’ve had a tendency to gloss over the colorful speech (“Don’t do stupid shit”) of one president you shouldn’t get hung up on the next idiot’s faux pas either. Be honest enough to know that the next time someone you favor is in power you’re going to cut him or her as much slack as they need, cheerfully forgetting this current streak of language policing. Every time you engage in that kind of overt or implied double standard you’re re-enforcing the kind of alienation that made some people into Trump voters in the first place. Plenty of Obama supporters turned a pretty hard corner in the last election. It can happen again.
All of the above focuses on small scale personal interaction. For an unfortunately large number of us this isn’t really going to matter much. We are a more and more polarized nation and many of the people who’ve spent the last week or so frothing over the “shithole” imbroglio aren’t in any danger of having an extended conversation with someone on team “make America great again”. The greater impact of this sort of thing is, as is frequently the case, going to be generated in the media. If you are widely read or heard, the amount of damage you can do is measured in the tens or hundreds of thousands of people you reach . Or millions. To make matters worse there is an expectation of superior knowledgeability on the part of somebody that is being paid to bring us the news. At one point in my life there was also the belief that a journalist was, while not without their own bias, an honest broker in the practice of their profession. I suppose that’s over now. Still even with a lowered bar there’s something off putting about having to listen to the sanctimonious ravings of some talking head who’s smart enough to know better but just doesn’t give a damn. It’s even worse when the lecture is delivered from someone that’s quite capable of following it up with a spirited defense of some pig from their own side of the sty. How many “news” people could, without any sense of irony, rip Trump’s head off and then launch into a glowing remembrance of LBJ, a man who’s own style of discourse was reputed to have been an answer to the unasked question of what a teamsters meeting would have sounded like at Bull Connors house. As somebody that believes that an annoying mix of pedantic self importance and obvious bias on the part of the media played a role in the last election I’d hate to see history repeat itself.