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The Politics of the Low Road

trumpI guess I sort of knew midway through last week that I’d be writing about Donald Trump. I think I realized it the moment I heard about his revolting behavior towards esteemed New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, whose physical disability was mocked and impersonated by Trump, to the delight of his followers. It was an important moment to stop and take note of. Not just because it was a gross thing to do; God knows there’s plenty of that towards people with disabilities in our popular culture. And not even because Trump subsequently pretended he’d never met Kovaleski and wasn’t making fun of his disability-related physical mannerisms, and even demanded an apology from the New York Times for daring to impugn his good character. Did anyone really expect Donald Trump to take responsibility like an adult? He is who he is, unfiltered, and you either admire that, find it amusing or are looking to move to another country or perhaps the moon in the event that he is elected president. Be outraged or be entertained, but don’t pretend you’re surprised.

I guess for me, it was important to reflect on Trump’s remarks because the public reaction to this incident ought to represent a change in how our society regards people with disabilities, and how much humanity we’re willing to insist upon for people like Kovaleski. Whether it will ultimately make a difference is going to tell us a great deal about ourselves.

I was heartened to read so much solid writing in response to the incident, and even cautiously encouraged by a drop in Trump’s poll numbers, at least in the short term. At the same time, this was a good time to follow the ever-important “don’t read the comments” rule. People will defend anything if their core beliefs are on the table, and no matter what your feelings about Donald Trump might be, he has clearly tapped into something deep within a larger percentage of the American psyche than we might feel comfortable acknowledging.

I’m not interested in talking about why Trump’s behavior was wrong, or how the worst thing a politician can do is punch down. First of all, I’m not sure that Trump is actually punching down, although I’m sure he believes he is. Serge Kovaleski is a highly respected journalist and a fantastic writer. He won a Pulitzer Prize in the category of “Breaking News Reporting” in 2009, and he was a Pulitzer finalist the year before. If you measure success by any other criteria besides rooms full of money, I think Kovaleski comes out looking just fine.

But Trump’s impersonation of Kovaleski wasn’t meant to belittle a journalist, no matter how much he might try to pretend otherwise. In the moments before his grotesque behavior, Trump put his audience on notice that to really appreciate the most excellent put-down he was about to deliver, they really needed a mental image to accompany his words. “The poor guy, you’ve got to see this guy,” he said, and then he curled up his hands and moved them in an approximation of Kovaleski, who has a condition called arthrogryposis which severely limits and affects his arm movements.

Trump didn’t attack Mr. Kovaleski’s journalistic credentials, in other words. He went for the easy laugh, the schoolyard put-down. Anyone who’s different and has worked hard to make their way in the world knows that moment, when the argument gets heated and suddenly the slurs come out. The N word. The R word. The homophobic or sexist language. The bully who knows that even his dullest words have power. And in that moment, discussion ends. Debate grinds to a halt. You sigh, because you understand that it’s now irrelevant whether or not you have a winning argument. Now you’re having a different conversation entirely.

You don’t have to be Donald Trump to take a spin on that low road, either. You can be the President of the United States or the Mayor of Chicago, and all your good works on behalf of the disability community can be tarnished by a careless moment or an entrenched vocabulary that is unable to surmount your pride or your bad habits. You can be an educator enjoying the sanctum sanctorum of the teachers’ lounge as a safe place to express your frustration. You can be a teenager who might even know better but is afraid to step out of the immature culture of your peers. For that matter, you can be an author and parent advocate who only finds his better humanity very late in the game, destined to spend the rest of his life striving to do penance for years of insensitivity.

Insults work because they break us down. And insults like Trump’s work because they separate complex human beings into Us and Them. Donald Trump understands what he did, and he is gambling on the fact that enough people will respond positively to the othering of someone with a disability that ultimately he won’t suffer politically for it. In my more cynical moments, I think he might very well be right. That’s why I’m not interested in really discussing the morality of Trump’s behavior. Because I’m worried that perhaps it doesn’t matter.

When I decided to write about this, I was concerned that by the time Monday rolled around, we might not be talking about it anymore. The thing about the world you can count on is its inexhaustible supply of Terrible Things to get our attention. What was outrageous on Tuesday might just be part of how things are by the following Monday. “Someone famous did a horrible thing? I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to be a lot more specific.”

I’m perhaps very cautiously optimistic this time. People still seem outraged. It doesn’t seem to be going away quite as quickly as I feared it might. There might be a price to pay for this one. A lot of people who might not have ever given it much thought might be thinking “Yeah, that was pretty disgusting, and no, I don’t think I’ll be voting for that guy after all.” Some casual news readers might have clicked on a link and read some work by Serge Kovaleski, and just like that, they’ve got a new journalist whom they respect, not because he’s an inspiration but because the man can WRITE. The needle might have been pushed ever so slightly in the right direction.

I don’t know, though. I’ve been wrong before.

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