The Damage Trump Does

When I was a kid, my extended family got together for the holidays. One of my uncles was a big, fat guy who looked like Santa Claus without the beard. He loved to laugh and tell jokes. When I was really young, I thought he was hilarious.

As I got older, however, I began to realize that my uncle was also wildly inappropriate. His jokes were often sexist or racist. He made insulting comments about guests. He inevitably brought down the level of discussion over dinner. I watched my parents wince whenever he said something offensive. Before the phrase “political correctness” was ever coined, my uncle was very politically incorrect.

My uncle’s major flaw was that he didn’t keep up with the times. Americans commonly made racist and sexist jokes in the 1950s. I’m sure that my uncle was a big hit with his friends when he was growing up. But the United States changed – as the result of the civil rights movement, the feminist revolution, the victories of the LGBT struggles –and my uncle didn’t change with it.

And now my uncle is running for president of the United States.

Of course, Donald Trump is not my uncle. But the two men share a common outdated worldview. When Americans criticize the Republican candidate for his outrageous comments and behavior, they’re also criticizing an earlier version of their own country. They’re criticizing the worldviews of their uncles, their fathers, their grandparents.

Take, for instance, the controversy over the comments Trump made before the taping of the TV show Access Hollywood back in 2005. In the tape released just before the second presidential debate, Trump discusses women in vulgar terms and boasts that his fame allowed him to act like a sexual predator. After the controversy began to spiral out of control, Trump apologized for his remarks but essentially dismissed them as “locker-room” language.

Trump came of age during the era when Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, became a millionaire by objectifying women. Also at this time, the “casting couch” became a symbol of what male bosses would demand of their female employees. As demonstrated by the recent sexual harassment allegations against one of Trump’s buddies, Roger Ailes of Fox News, America has certainly not completely escaped the Playboy era. But these men of a particular age – Trump, Ailes, comedian Bill Cosby – think that their power and privilege still put them beyond accountability.

The behavior of many American men has not changed. But American society no longer looks the other way at their conduct.

Many of Trump’s other offensive comments and actions were once considered acceptable in America, such as his mocking of a disabled reporter and his derogatory remarks about Mexicans.

The Republican nominee also talks about African-Americans in a completely outdated way, arguing that 45 percent of Blacks in cities live in poverty. The number is actually 25 percent, and more poor African-Americans live outside cities. Also, the majority of African Americans now live in the suburbs, not the “inner cities.”

Trump has gone out of his way to offend some new groups, such as POWs when he criticized John McCain for being captured by the Vietnamese. He has also taken aim at targets, like Muslims, that are still routinely scapegoated and stereotyped in American society. He is, in many ways, an equal opportunity offender.

The Republican nominee doesn’t just insult categories of people. He has publically insulted hundreds of individuals – reporters, politicians, celebrities – in a demonstration of political incivility that has probably never been seen in American political life.

For Trump supporters, the candidate “tells it like it is.” His running mate Mike Pence has praised Trump’s “refreshing candor.” After all, the vast majority of American politicians are cautious, choosing their words carefully so as not to offend any possible voters. Trump doesn’t care about alienating voters. He has even insulted the leaders of his own political party.

Some U.S. commentators have dismissed Donald Trump as a fluke. With a little less than a month before the U.S. elections, his chances of becoming president are very low. Perhaps, on November 8, Americans will wake up and realize that the Trump candidacy was just a brief and disturbing flashback to a time when the United States was uncomfortable with its own diversity. After all, didn’t Americans elect our first African-American president in 2008, and aren’t we close to electing our first woman president?

It’s a mistake, however, to believe that the arrow of history moves in only one direction. Just before the Nazis came to power in Germany, the country enjoyed the most liberal period of free expression and tolerance in its history. Donald Trump represents a very large constituency of Americans who would like to return the country to the 1950s – before the civil rights era, before women’s liberation, before gay marriage and the transgender movement. They have been energized by the Trump campaign.

The United States could tip either way at this point – forward a few more steps in a progressive direction or backward toward Trump’s America. If it were just America, I would bet on forward progress. But Trump isn’t alone. The Brexit vote, the rejection of the Colombian peace accord, the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the consolidation of power by Vladimir Putin in Russia – all of these are troubling signs of backlash.

Donald Trump is, above all, a poor politician. He doesn’t know how to build coalitions, doesn’t know to moderate his tone, doesn’t even know how to do minimal preparation for the debates. Trump, like my uncle, is a man of the past, and he doesn’t know how to learn new tricks. But sometimes the past comes back not just to haunt us but to rule our future. We might not be so lucky the next time around if someone of Trump’s views, but not his obvious flaws, runs for the presidency.

Hankyoreh, October 16, 2016


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