Becoming the Donald
Regardless of what happens in New Hampshire, Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign is running stronger than pretty much everyone but him assumed it would when he announced his candidacy last June. Those who thought his run was a publicity stunt that would fizzle, à la Herman Cain’s or Michele Bachmann’s in 2012, have had a rude awakening.
That his campaign has not tanked is perplexing given the heretofore electability-killing comments he regularly makes. For a quick review, this includes claims that Mexican immigrants are rapists and pedophiles; jibes about John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war; sexist comments about Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, and Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly; and a call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. In the days leading up to the Iowa Caucus, even Mr. Trump seemed flabbergasted that none of this had destroyed his prospects.
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he marveled.
It has been interesting to watch the varied ways Americans and their media respond to an alarming chunk of the population embracing what Republican writer Michael Gerson calls “the disturbing normalization of policies and arguments that recently seemed unacceptable, even unsayable.”
Some have admirably tried to submit Mr. Trump’s non-detailed plans, such as his desire to make Mexico build a “big and beautiful wall” on our country’s southern border, to the same rigor they do more traditional policy proposals. Most seem to have given into exasperation, taking to op-ed columns and social media to pillory how racist, sexist, and all-around horrible his ideas are.
Predictably, the strong words used to decry what Mr. Trump says have spilled into descriptions of the man himself. Maybe this is well-earned.
I fear, however, that some of the language about Mr. Trump sounds troublingly close to the language used by Mr. Trump.
One individual I know, for example, responded to Mr. Trump’s boast that he could get away with shooting someone by suggesting Mr. Trump turn the gun on himself. I have also seen Mr. Trump called “disgusting,” a “piece of filth,” and an “awful thing.”
It is hard to blame people for this kind of reaction; his campaign has defamed and even endangered vast swathes of people. But in maligning Mr. Trump with terms not unlike those he uses to insult women, Mexicans, Muslims, Jeb Bush, and God knows who is next, we are tacitly saying some people are worthy of being described this way.
We should not be comfortable with this. Ultimately, the offensive remarks Mr. Trump has made are not just problematic because of what they suggest about the specific groups he denigrates; they are untenable because he says them about anyone at all. We may be significantly limiting the target when we aim our own invective at Mr. Trump instead of an entire race or religion, but we are still advancing the idea that such slurs have a place in our public discourse. They do not.
This is not a naive manifesto about being nice. It is about doing all we can to prevent the continual debasement of respectful civic dialogue in our country. It is about not allowing our own words to mirror language we rightfully denounce.
In his address to Congress last year, Pope Francis said, “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
If we are going to emulate public figures with our speech, let us bear words like these in mind before we open our mouths.