The Election’s Terrifying Referendum On Cruelty And Kindness

By Talia Lavin

“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

It’s been awhile — 62 years, to be precise — since U.S. Army chief counsel Joseph Welch uttered those words in a hearing with Joseph McCarthy. But its echoes persist.

Before the first presidential debate, among my friends and vibrating through social media, there was a palpable sense of dread: Could Hillary deliver the TKO that would dunk Trump in the polls and pull her numbers up? What would their confrontation be, and could she withstand him?

But in the hours preceding their second match-up, dread of a different sort cast its pall. It had already been a painful weekend, a weekend that tarnished our politics profoundly, and the wet October air itself seemed to mirror the chill we felt. While a few miles off the coast the sea lashed in storm, swathes of the American electorate huddled in disgust as the Republican presidential nominee demonstrated, once again, his nigh-unfathomable capacity for cruelty.

A lot of words have been used to describe Trump — White Supremacist, racist, misogynist, bigot, narcissist — but perhaps the most salient adjective is cruel. The legal definition of cruelty, the one we use to prosecute criminals, is: abusive, outrageous, and inhumane treatment that results in the wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering upon the body or mind.

By cruelty in this context, I mean the gratuitous infliction of pain, for the purpose of causing pain, where other means could have been employed to achieve one’s goals — maneuvers in which pain is an end in itself. Cruelty’s instruments are shame, humiliation, smears, and insinuations — anything to make its recipient small and weak and “other” and worthless.

For nearly two years, the whole country has been marinating in the cruelty emanating from one cruel man. And now, we must ask the painful question: Where does that leave us?

We are used to our politics being gladiatorial — even vicious. A system that routinely demands public sparring between candidates naturally begets its share of ferocious rhetoric; policy and character and image have always been fair game in the arena, wherein barbs dart the path of the striver’s ascent. This campaign, though, has always been nastier than those of past decades: Trump’s smallness of character was always evinced by the vicious smallness of his insults — “Little Marco” and “Low-Energy Jeb” and “Lyin’ Ted.” (This, possibly, was the real “locker room banter,” with Trump playing the role of “person who stuffs other people in a locker.”) But Donald Trump could not be sunk, in his improbable, ignoble ascendance, by the cruelty he displayed to other contenders in the Republican primary. After all, they were also combatants. After all, they had placed themselves onstage alongside this churl.

And somehow his hurled slurs against religious minorities and immigrants and his stereotyping of African-Americans didn’t sink him; they were and are ugly words, white-supremacist blotches on the fabric of this nation that have already made many lives more painful, but they did not damn him in the eyes of the polity or his party. They were dumbed-down, amped-up versions of familiar campaign motifs, the broad-stroke rhetoric that has always played a role in our politics, long before the Southern Strategy was a twinkle in Nixon’s eye. Never mind that his rhetoric on Islam led directly, last year, to the largest spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes since September 11, 2001. That a homeless man was beaten bloody in Boston, for being Mexican, and for revenge, last August. Never mind that it is cruel to make millions of Americans fear for their lives, for the color of their skin, for the content of their prayer.

And so we arrive at the question of Trump’s disciples: the crowds that throng to his rallies in their thousands (“Show the crowd? Here’s the crowd,” tweeted journalist Katy Tur, revealing a video of acolytes teeming before the podium Tuesday.) They have followed him for almost two years now, and the current ire directed at their champion seems to have inflamed rather than cooled their passions. In addition to calls for the jailing of his political opponent — the ubiquitous chants of “Lock her up!” to which we have become all too accustomed — Trump’s rally-goers utilize racial slurs and physical violence against protesters, especially if those protesters don’t share their skin color. Trump revels in his own ability to whip up a crowd: “Right now, you say to your wife: ‘Let’s go to a movie after Trump.’ But you won’t do that because you’ll be so high and so excited that no movie is going to satisfy you,” he told a crowd in Pennsylvania last week.

All of which begs the unsettling question: Is Trump’s cruelty contagious?

There has been an abundance of reporting this cycle — much of it thoughtful, empathetic, finely tuned, and deeply investigated — devoted to exploring the motivations of Trump’s supporters. “Economic anxiety” — a phrase that has become hollow due to its constant employment as an explanation for the #MAGA movement — runs high among them, as does resentment of bicoastal elites. Each of them has a family, a story, as we’ve learned from the New Yorker, and the New York Times, and the Washington Post. And Hillary Clinton was near-universally panned for referring to many of them as “deplorables” (a term many Trump supporters have reclaimed, with glee). But all this consideration begs the question, posed eloquently by Slate’s Jamelle Bouie: Where are the profiles of those who would suffer the most under an overtly racist Trump administration — where is the meticulous press attention to their anxiety, economic and otherwise?

And is it an abdication of moral responsibility to extend such understanding to those who embrace the cruel rhetoric of a bigot?

It’s been surprising throughout, to me — someone who found Trump repugnant from the moment he descended that infamous escalator to steal Ann Coulter’s rhetoric on Mexicans — what has sent a shiver through Trump’s support, caused his numbers to dip. Thus far, the most impactful incidents have been those that have transcended the bounds of even rough-and-tumble political vulgarity. They always seem to be directed at individuals — women, Hispanics, Muslims — who fall neatly into categories Trump plainly sees as “other.” Consider his attack on Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, for her looks, and dark hints at her past, which had contained a depressive episode. There was, most damagingly, his feud with the Khan family, minimizing the loss of their son, and questioning the agency of Ghazala Khan, whose lips were sealed at the DNC by grief. And his attack, just last week, on Alicia Machado, who had already endured humiliation on national television due to an ambush of cameras he’d led, back in the 1990s.

What these episodes revealed was an unwillingness — or an inability — to determine the difference between a deserved reproach and a personal insult. Trump is also, seemingly, unable to distinguish between political sparring between equals, and smearing private individuals from a bully pulpit, regardless of the effect of that inability on his strategic interests. His cruelty manifests as a kind of feral instinct for abasement, though it has long been a signature tactic. Trump, who had McCarthy’s consigliere Roy Cohn for a mentor, has long been a proponent of scorched-earth revenge: against ex-wives (for having been cheated on by him); against the Department of Justice (for suing him for racial discrimination, though his $100 million countersuit was dismissed); against comedians and journalists, like Rosie O’Donnell and Katy Tur. And his notions of revenge have always been both grandiose (“hit ’em back 10 times harder”) and petty (he once bragged about sending back to television journalist Connie Chung the decapitated stems of roses she’d sent him, after an unfavorable interview).

In a life pitted with stories of vengeance, two commonalities emerge: an inability to resist parrying any insult, no matter how small; and a stunning capacity for cruelty founded on dehumanization, one that can leave an onlooker as breathless as an unwanted kiss can. This, after all, is a man who denied his own gravely ill infant grand-nephew medical care as an act of revenge. There was no profit to be gained in denying an infant health care, an infant who went on to develop cerebral palsy. (“I was angry,” he said, in explanation.)

And so at the debate we were treated, again, to the Boschian buffet of cruelties Trump has unleashed on his opponents — and on us. After a weekend on the defensive (“upset and alone,” per the New York Times headline, and sequestered in his gaudy tower), Trump took his cruelty nuclear. In the guise of “debate prep,” he appeared with Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathy Shelton, all but the last of whom had accused Bill Clinton of sexual depredations during his marriage to Hillary.

As in the Heidi Cruz episode, Trump grabbed his opponent by the spouse. In this case, he gave each woman about a minute of airtime to tell their stories of rape and suffering, or simply to express their support for him. In place of contrition, an important tool for most politicians, he utilized cruelty instead. It was an astonishing act of barbarity: The same man dismissing his own taped comments advocating sexual assault as “locker-room banter” held up the sexual assaults of women as a shield. (Women used as props are still, it turns out, women being used as objects.) Moreover, he did so explicitly to remind his female debate opponent of the most painful, and excruciatingly public, chapter of her life: one in which the entire nation weighed in as litigants about her husband’s infidelities, in which the shame of adultery, the pain and remorse and all the dark, bitter alchemy of spousal betrayal were dragged out into the public square, and held up, crowing, by those who wished to see her husband fall, and her with him. Trump tried to get the women on the stage at the start of the debate, and have them sit in his family’s box, a whisker-breadth away: Instead, he only succeeded in planting them in the front row. No doubt he was crestfallen at the lack of cutaways and a coursing score, given his polished resume as a reality-TV villain. By sitting, smirking, between Bill’s accusers, Trump sought to undermine Hillary’s political message by annihilating her as a woman: to drench her, once again, in sexualized shame.

It is to Hillary’s eternal credit that he failed. (Never mind that anyone could have anticipated that Hillary Clinton — Hillary Clinton, who survived the Starr Report and the scandal and the post-scandal and the impeachment and is still married to Bill — could get through this, too, unruffled.) The palpable, mafia-don menace he radiated was not enough to puncture her composure. Even to redirect the discussion to policy was an astonishing act of resistance against a level of cruelty most of us could never imagine inflicting on another human being. And though he snuffled and paced and rambled his way through to another day of his odious campaign, her refusal to engage with his cruelty was a moment of unheralded triumph.

“I want us to heal our country and bring it together,” she said, saying the words we didn’t know we needed, washing away the weekend’s muck, like the rain hadn’t. “Because that’s, I think, the best way to get the future that our children and grandchildren deserve.”

It’s been easy to mock Hillary’s slogan of “love and kindness”; she is a complex figure known most of all for her steely resolve. But in some sense, this election is as much a referendum on kindness and cruelty as it is on any other aspect of our national identity. Like so many others, I long to escape the constant, existential threat of Trump’s menace to the continued stability of our republic; I long to have a President I can hold to the justly high critical standards due to the office, to make sure she follows through on the promises of kindness she champions on the campaign trail.

The reason so many are recoiling is because, for months, we have been exposed to the stench of cruelty. We have learned that cruelty can be spread from the pulpit, and burn through the country like fire in dry grass. We have learned that, once unleashed, it is difficult to re-harness, and its new prominence is a social burden that the entire country has, now, to bear.

It might be time to turn Joseph Welch’s question inward. The question is not whether Donald Trump has acquired any decency; the evidence suggests he never had any to lose.

The question is — at long last — do we?

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