‘Just lis­ten to what you heard’

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Leonard Pitts Jr. The Mi­ami Her­ald Leonard Pitts is syn­di­cated by Tri­bune Me­dia Ser­vices.

In some ways, it was the most mem­o­rable line of Mon­day’s pres­i­den­tial de­bate.

It came af­ter Don­ald Trump had stum­bled through a non­re­spon­sive re­sponse to a sim­ple ques­tion: Why did it take him so long to con­cede Pres­i­dent Obama was born in the U.S.? In re­ply, Trump con­grat­u­lated him­self for get­ting Obama to pro­duce his long-form birth cer­tifi­cate, falsely blamed Hil­lary Clin­ton for start­ing the racist cam­paign and touted his great re­la­tion­ship with black peo­ple.

And Clin­ton, smil­ing, said, “Just lis­ten to what you heard.”

They ought to put that on a bill­board; it could en­com­pass Trump’s whole cam­paign. It cer­tainly en­com­passes his de­bate per­for­mance. Granted, Trump spent the first min­utes do­ing his best im­pres­sion of a states­man, but that was all he could man­age. Then, like your fa­vorite band on a re­union tour, he pulled out the old hits.

He blus­tered, fil­i­bus­tered and in­ter­rupted, in­sisted (dis­hon­estly) that he op­posed the Iraq War from the be­gin­ning, sug­gested (de­cep­tively) that he never said Clin­ton doesn’t have “a pres­i­den­tial look,” de­clared (men­da­ciously) that he never called cli­mate change a Chi­nese “hoax.”

At one point, he an­swered a ques­tion about cy­ber­se­cu­rity by not­ing that his 10-year-old son “is so good with these com­put­ers, it’s un­be­liev­able.” Which is lovely for lit­tle Bar­ron Trump, but it tells us noth­ing about how his dad would se­cure the Amer­i­can com­puter grid against state-spon­sored hack­ers.

Per­haps most in­cred­i­bly, at the end of a testy rant, the no­to­ri­ously thin-skinned en­ter­tainer said, “I ... have a much bet­ter tem­per­a­ment than she has.” Real­ity lurched side­ways on that one. “Just lis­ten to what you heard,” she said, i.e., take it at face value. If we were all do­ing that, this elec­tion wouldn’t be close. But we aren’t, so it is.

It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that, at its core, Trump’s ap­peal is nei­ther about is­sues nor pol­icy po­si­tions. Nor is it pri­mar­ily, as some would ar­gue, grounded in eco­nomic dis­lo­ca­tion. Yes, the Rust Belt is hurt­ing. But it’s been hurt­ing for years; the era when a high school ed­u­ca­tion got you a life­time job on the load­ing dock or fac­tory floor has been gone for a long time.

By con­trast, the era of po­lit­i­cal in­co­her­ence that has pro­duced Trump is a rel­a­tively new phe­nom­e­non. So per­haps the dis­lo­ca­tion we’re talk­ing about is less eco­nomic than de­mo­graphic, i.e., the ran­cor of those who re­sent press­ing 1 for English, trans­gen­der bath­rooms, two men atop a wed­ding cake and a brown­skinned pres­i­dent with a funny name singing Al Green songs at a cam­paign rally. Some of us feel steam­rolled by change.

They say they want to “make Amer­ica great again.” For them, Amer­ica was “great” when they were the only ones who had a say in it.

Abra­ham Lin­coln fa­mously said no for­eign power could, by force, “take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thou­sand years . ... If de­struc­tion be our lot, we must our­selves be its au­thor and fin­isher.” This was 23 years be­fore the Civil War. Al­most 200 years later, we face an­other civil war, only it’s a civil war of ideas and ideals, a se­ces­sion from ob­jec­tive real­ity and the greater us.

But Lin­coln is still right — if de­struc­tion is our fate, it will come from within. And with the ar­guable ex­cep­tion of the 2008 re­ces­sion, Don­ald Trump rep­re­sents this coun­try’s gravest ex­is­ten­tial threat since the end of the Soviet Union.

“Just lis­ten to what you heard,” ad­vises Hil­lary Clin­ton.

And it’s a marker of what we’ve be­come that, for some of us, that will be en­tirely too much to ask.

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