By David K. Shipler
Making America Cruel Again, Part 4 of an Occasional Series
Donald Trump might not drink alcohol, but he is fueled by another addiction, probably more dangerous: the roar of the crowd. After every brief period of detox in Washington, surrounded by sober aides and Congressional Republicans who try to contain his craving, he needs his fix. So he breaks loose and explodes into a rally of avid worshippers in a carefully picked niche of the country where his cult of personality thrives on loathing the rest of America. They adore him feverishly, wrote the columnist Richard Cohen, because “he hates the right people.”
Legitimizing political hatred predated Trump, fostered by such propagandists as Rush Limbaugh, who for years has been vilifying liberals, Democrats, blacks, immigrants, the “drive-by” media, and “feminazis” who advocate for women’s rights. Limbaugh’s name-calling has caught on with enough conservatives to make its way into the White House and now prospectively to the Supreme Court if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed. Accused of sexual assault as a teenager, Kavanaugh showed more judicial temper than temperament by attacking Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and raging against an imagined conspiracy of “the left” on behalf of the Clintons. Trump loved it.
Whatever it is that Trumpist conservatives want to conserve, it’s obviously not the civil discourse that has lubricated the machinery of American democracy.
Some on the left have followed suit. Take Hillary Clinton’s infamous “deplorables” label on what she called the “irredeemable” Trump supporters. Or the recent tactic of stalking and harassing Republican officials in restaurants, which is ugly and counter-productive. By loudly harassing Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his wife out of a Washington restaurant recently, for example, the demonstrators accomplished mission impossible: making Cruz look like a sympathetic victim. Supporters of his re-election campaign sent flurries of emails raising exaggerated alarms about the couple’s physical safety.
Did Clinton campaign in enough pro-Trump districts and try to woo instead of denigrate? Did any protester consider trapping Cruz into an actual conversation by confronting him with substantive arguments? That’s what two women did on live television to Republican Senator Jeff Flake as he tried to escape on an elevator after announcing that he’d vote for Kavanaugh. Their pleas to him, and one woman’s demand that he look at her as she told of being assaulted, were angry and heart-wrenching, but they could not be brushed away. Flake looked stricken and embarrassed. Perhaps they contributed to his demand for a further FBI investigation.
In a rally this week in Mississippi, to the cheers of his impassioned followers, Trump went into his vaudevillian mode to imitate and mock Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s main accuser, whom he had complimented just days earlier as a fine woman who gave credible and compelling testimony. What changed? Probably the crowd, poised to give Trump his necessary dose of adulation for his red-meat macho attacks.
Most elements in his screed, centering on Ford’s inability to remember peripheral details of the night of her assault, came from the professionally defective report written by the Republicans’ hatchet woman, Rachel Mitchell, who questioned Ford gently in the committee hearing but then conveniently forgot the dynamics of memory that she has surely learned as a supposedly experienced prosecutor of sexual assault cases.
She—and then Trump—exaggerated Ford’s memory lapses, distorted some of her testimony, and made much of Ford’s inability to recall the exact location or date of the party 36 years ago, how she got there and how she got home, and so on. But if Mitchell is any kind of prosecutor—an assumption thrown into doubt by her memo—she knows very well that for trauma victims, the details of the attack itself can be indelibly imprinted in the brain while peripheral aspects of the experience fade from memory.
In addition, by concluding that no prosecutor would file a case in this instance, and that the allegation was not even supported by a preponderance of evidence, Mitchell applied standards more exacting than what the Senate requires—levels of evidence needed in a criminal case, not a confirmation hearing. She also went far beyond what she knew. She never got to question others allegedly present at the party or still others familiar with the teenaged Kavanaugh’s habits of heavy drinking. She didn’t even get to question Kavanaugh himself very much, because Republican senators, unable to contain themselves, pushed her aside and took over. Mostly they aimed blistering attacks at the Democrats and gave space for Kavanaugh’s indignation. What they did not do was elicit any new information. It’s worth reading the Democrats’ rebuttal of Mitchell’s memo.
What is it about Trump and his Republican acolytes that diminishes everyone who gets into their orbit? Mitchell might have been a respected prosecutor before she entered that hearing room, and she comported herself well during the hearing, moving through a series of fact-based questions to test Ford’s credibility. But having failed to poke holes in her story, Mitchell then did the Republicans’ bidding in her written report. She has damaged her reputation. She has sent a message to sexual assault victims, at least in her district, that they will probably be disbelieved if they come forward.
Trump loves and hates women at the same time. He loves them for their bodies. He covets them as sex objects. He hates them when they stand up for themselves. At a visceral level, he seems to fear women who are not models of deference and acquiescence, and he sees in those who are strong a waspish impulse to sting and hurt. An old line from Seinfeld comes to mind: “What did your parents do to you?”
Trump is obnoxious, no doubt. But more durable in the politics of hate are the good citizens who participate by attending his rallies to administer his drug of choice. What if people didn’t show up or, better yet, met his insults with silence or boos? That so many, including women, can go along with him, can laugh at Ford and ridicule her story of trauma, that so many on both sides can detest fellow Americans who think differently, that so few can converse courteously across the lines of dispute—these defects of society will survive Trump. Long after he is gone, the country will be in a corrosive war with itself.