The perils of playing to the mob
From the looks of things, Donald Trump’s rallies are getting crazier by the day.
True, they were pretty awful to begin with during the 2016 presidential campaign, when his mocking of a disabled reporter, insulting decorated combat veterans, such as Sen. John McCain, and threatening to arrest Hilary Clinton, were all met by wild cheers of approval. It took me a while to realize that Trump, like all dangerous demagogues, has the ability to turn ordinary, relatively decent individuals into an ugly mob.
I don’t doubt for a minute that were these same individuals to come across a disabled person, their first emotion would be sympathy, or perhaps empathy, knowing that they knew a friend or a family member in the same condition. Likewise, to insult a military veteran would be unthinkable for those who consider themselves patriotic Americans and many of whom, no doubt, are veterans themselves.
In recent months, however, Trump has been stirring up his supporters by labeling the free press as an “Enemy of the People,” an evil accusation used by every murderous tyrant over the past two centuries. Reporters at his rallies have been physically threatened, and lately a bizarre group of conspiracy lunatics known as “QAnon” has been showing up in greater numbers. Their accusations are so demented that even conservative mainstream Republicans are calling for them to be suppressed lest they embarrass the GOP.
But “QAnon” is the Frankenstein monster of Donald Trump and Republican politicians, the latter of which have stood by like craven cowards as their leader rampages all over the Constitution and betrays our democratic process to Vladimir Putin. For years, Trump has been playing to the alt-right zealots, from his first espousal of the “birther” movement to the pathological lies that are now the framework of his administration. Even George Orwell never could have imagined a Donald Trump in a so-called free society.
I thought about Trump’s hate rallies after viewing the new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” about Fred Rogers of children’s television fame. In truth, I never watched his show and dismissed him as some embarrassing lightweight. That view evaporated as the film ended and tears ran down my eyes as well as those of others in attendance. Mr. Rogers was the “anti-Trump”: a kind, decent, soft-spoken man who could be called the “Child Whisperer” for his intuitive understanding of children and his lifelong defense of them.
A scene at the end of the movie (spoiler alert) completely unraveled me. It takes place at Rogers’ funeral in 2003. Across from the church are a gaggle of folks from the Westboro Baptist Church, the “God Hates Fags” crowd, protesting Rogers’ belated support for gay rights. Among those holding the horrid scripted signs are several young children.
When asked what he thought Rogers’ reaction would have been to this demonstration, one of his friends believes that his heart would have gone out to the kids. These youngsters looked “exhausted and depleted,” with little understanding of the vicious wordings on the placards they were forced to carry.
After I left the theater, I reflected on the children who are taken to Trump’s rallies and exposed to the deliberate and carefully orchestrated venom that flows from our president’s lips. Will their minds be poisoned by what they see and hear? How will their values be formed as adults? Will they be conditioned to believe that debasing other human beings is a valid life path?
I’m not talking about being exposed to basic conservative values, some of which I share. I’m more concerned with a tone that honors cruelty, humiliation and the trampling of human rights to enhance an unquenchable, power-mad ego.
Mob energy is easy to fall into, and I’ve seen variations of it in many circles, including those that stand up for peace, social justice and spirituality. Fortunately, these groups don’t usually resort to violence or even threats of violence. Some social scientists believe that the attraction to mob participation stems from a desire to belong to something bigger and hopefully better than the individual, especially if that individual is facing tough times as we all do.
At some point, Donald Trump might visit New Mexico and try to spin his malignant web among our friends and neighbors. I hope we are better than that. Traditionally, New Mexicans are a tough, self-reliant bunch, and there is no reason why we should be swayed by what is, essentially, a pathetic little man with a big mouth.