There’s an old personality test—introduced to me in middle school and lovingly preserved on the interwebs—involving a woman who gets herself killed journeying between her husband and her lover. The “test,” as it were, centers on the question of who is most to blame for the woman’s untimely death. Is it the bored husband who neglected to take his wife along on his business trip? Is it the greedy boatman who refused to ferry her across the river to safety? Is it the heartless boyfriend who didn’t lift a finger in her defense? Or is it the woman herself for being unfaithful and blundering into the wrong place at the wrong time?
It’s a ridiculous conceit, but the idea is that how you assign blame for the woman’s murder is determined by what you value most in life. The options, in this case, include such things as “fun,” “sex,” “money” and, my personal favorite, “magic.”
Anyway, that story’s been on my mind for the last few days as I’ve seen Donald Trump campaign events descend into violence and mayhem whenever a gaggle of anti-Trump agitators has sneaked its way into the arena.
With regards to these unholy scuffles, everyone seems to have a firm opinion about who is most at fault. Interestingly, however—and I think you know where I’m going with this—no one can quite agree on who, exactly, that is.
Obviously, then, what we need is to update that silly game about the two-timing wife so that it applies to our own time and our own values. With Trump—a man who stands as America’s signal Rorschach test of 2016—we can learn a great deal about how each of us thinks just by how we interpret what is happening directly in front of our eyes.
From a sampling of reactions, we find that most people trace the cause of this campaign unrest to either a) the protesters, b) Trump supporters or c) Trump himself. To an extent, one’s opinion of these incidents is merely an affectation of one’s politics: If you find Donald Trump generally detestable, you generally attribute all detestable acts to the man himself. Conversely, if you think Trump speaks truth to political correctness, you find fault only with those who are preventing him from speaking. It’s confirmation bias in action: You see what you want to see and filter out everything else.
But of course, all of that is but the tip of the bloody, bloody iceberg. However illuminating it might be to debate which side threw the first punch, it’s not until folks start to blame those who weren’t even in the room that the real fun begins.
We might start with the Donald himself, who has fingered Bernie Sanders as the main culprit for the madness, saying that the party crashers at his gatherings are on direct marching orders from the socialist from Vermont. It is noteworthy that Trump bases this claim on no evidence whatsoever, while he has simultaneously blamed other outbursts on ISIS—yes, that ISIS—due to a YouTube video that was swiftly exposed as a typical Internet hoax. As Trump explained on Meet the Press, “All I know is what’s on the Internet,” reminding us that he is apparently the one person in America who believes, with all his heart, that if it’s online, it must be true.
Farce that this undeniably is, such behavior nonetheless offers real insights into Trump’s personality and that of his fellow travelers. Strongest among these, perhaps, is the value of “truthiness,” a.k.a. believing something to be true simply because your gut tells you so.
In fact, Trump’s entire movement is dependent on truthiness, since at least 80 percent of his campaign’s major claims are demonstrably false and his promise of “restoring America’s greatness” is one big fatuous smoke-and-mirrors routine containing nary a whiff of substance or honest reporting. If all presidential candidates engage in hyperbole, Trump is unique for engaging in absolutely nothing else.
The real problem, though, is how sinister that hyperbole has been for the last nine months and how deeply it has metastasized within the GOP. While this week’s outright physical violence might be relatively new, the truth is that Trump and his flock have been blaming other people for America’s problems for his entire presidential run. Like any seasoned demagogue, Trump has invented most of this blame from whole cloth, while at other times he has even managed to invent the problems themselves. (Who would ever know, for instance, that net immigration from Mexico is actually negative over the last five years, or that U.S. military spending increased from 2014 to 2015?)
Which leads us, as it must, to the most disturbing personality quirk of all: The one that blames all of this turmoil on African-Americans and views the entire American experience in terms of white supremacy.
While it would be irresponsible to peg every Trump voter as a white supremacist—or, specifically, a Nazi or a Klansman—the point is that Trump rallies have become a safe space—if not a veritable breeding ground—for white people who think that punching, kicking and spitting on black people is their God-given right as members of a privileged race. For all Trump’s claims that the protesters are the true instigators of these melees, most video clips suggest otherwise: Largely, we just keep seeing groups of young, mostly black people nonviolently holding up signs and chanting cheeky slogans while white guards and white attendees proceed to manhandle them with the greatest possible force—egged on, every single time, by the candidate himself.
You see pictures like these—paired with people like Mike Huckabee calling the protesters “thugs,” a word that Republicans only ever use to describe African-Americans—and you realize all that’s missing are the dogs and the fire hoses.
Among the many sick ironies of Donald Trump is his supposed fidelity to the First Amendment, which he claims the dissenters at his rallies are attempting to suppress (as if Trump has ever lacked an outlet for expressing himself on a moment’s notice). Historical ignoramus that he is, he doesn’t seem to realize that, when it comes to muzzling free speech, few things are more effective than riling up a large gang of angry white people by telling them how to mistreat a small gang of dark-skinned antagonists. (And then, of course, pleading ignorance when those same white people do exactly what you suggest.)
Even if there were nothing at all race-based in Trump and company’s behavior, we would still be left with this profoundly dangerous idea that all problems can, and should, be solved with physical violence. To hear Trump talk, you’d think his were the first-ever campaign events to feature any sort of disruptors and that there is no rational response except to treat them like enemy combatants. (How long before Trump recommends waterboarding?)
The relevant terms here are “escalate” and “de-escalate.” As any honest police officer knows, whenever you are faced with a potentially explosive situation, it is your moral responsibility to try to de-escalate tensions and not make matters worse. Indeed, for anyone who wields authority or influence over others—not least in politics—the obligation to lead by example and get your minions under control is absolute and non-negotiable.
Donald Trump has failed that charge over and over again. In so doing, he has revealed which values he holds dear and which values he does not—if, that is, he can be said to possess any values at all.
It proved quite prescient that Trump opened his campaign while riding an escalator in Trump Tower in Manhattan: As it turns out, he is an escalator.