Wednesday, October 31, 2018
In my lifetime, the model for acting presidential was Ronald Reagan. After his first election, he quit using the terms "Democrat" and "Republican" in his speeches, and spoke of and to "my fellow Americans." In the intervening years, our leaders have made their speeches more partisan, more focused on political-party differences than on our shared journey. That has led to our current administration, where everything, sadly, is viewed through the lens of tribal politics and optical advantage.
Why? Because that's how you win an election in 21st-century America.
We've lived through one of the saddest weeks in our recent history. A man walked into a grocery store in Kentucky and shot two African Americans in the back of the head, calmly telling a bystander not to worry, because "white people don't kill other white people."
An angry man in Florida heard a message of hate at a MAGA rally that inspired him to send bombs to assassinate two former presidents and a dozen other people he heard Trump criticize at rallies and on Twitter. A white nationalist, who was upset at the news of a caravan of Central American immigrants approaching our border and the right-wing conspiracy theory that Jewish Refugee organizations are paying them, slaughtered 11 innocent people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, shouting that he must "kill all the Jews! They are killing my people!"
How did we let it get to this point in our country? When did the loyal opposition become the enemy of the people? Why have hate and grievance drowned out civility and hope?
The warning signs were there. Charlottesville. A 57-percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks, data from the Jewish Defense League shows. Hate groups weaponizing the Internet. Cries of "fake news" about America's free press.
My sainted grandmother often cautioned me that the very thing before the word "but" is a lie. So it seems with our current president. He begins his speeches with a measured, rational statement from his teleprompter that sounds reassuring. And then he adds a "but."
Teleprompter Trump suddenly turns into unscripted Trump. The pitch of his voice rises. The path of his voice quickens. He becomes a fiery cleric of his MAGA culture, a zealot of the highest order. No hyperbole is too extreme. No limit to his grievance exists.
In that narcissistic moment, it's a rapture of blame against "them."
We have heard this type of speech before in mosques around the globes. Imams call on the forgotten men on Arab streets to pick up the sword of jihad and strike down the enemies of the faith. Is it any surprise that the chief cleric of our country shouts down his "evil" enemies, and angry men harken to his call, taking up the cause of violent bigotry? Are we creating and enabling a cycle of escalating hate and violence?
The phenomenon we are seeing played out in our country is called radicalization. It is defined as the action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political or social issues. A portion of any radicalized populace will be susceptible to becoming violent extremists. In a country like ours, the ease of access to guns makes this a dangerous combination. This is a foreseeable consequence of the relentless heated partisan rhetoric we take in.
There must be a return to civil public debate in this country. All politicians should suspend their social-media accounts, or at least limit themselves to constituent updates on legislative matters rather than use it for personal political attacks. All politicians should ask their supporters not to confront political opponents in public places. Also, all politicians should be required to hold regular town-hall meetings in their offices and in their home districts to promote orderly, reasoned debate.
Most importantly, the president should end his campaign-style rallies immediately. He's not running until 2020. The country would be better off if he concentrated on the duties of his office rather than demands of his political ambitions. The speeches are divisive and not in keeping with the goal of creating a more perfect union.
We can be a better nation than what we have become. Turn to your better angels, Americans.
Fred Rand is president of several companies in Memphis. He writes southern novels under the name James Hunter Stuart.