Donald Trump and the end of civility

Photo by Bob Daemmrich

This political season differs from any other I remember, and I’ve been paying attention since the Reagan years. Driving around Central Austin, I have seen two bumper stickers that illustrate this point: "Trump the Bitch" and "Up Yours, Hillary."

Politics have always been dirty and underhanded. Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel with pistols. Still, this political season I despair at how far we have fallen.

In terms of crude sexism, I’ve never witnessed anything like it. Even the racist insults against Obama never made it to bumper stickers, at least not in inner Austin.

It wasn’t long ago that we scoffed at people for “ad hominem” arguments. In effective persuasion, attacks against the person herself were not only considered crass but also belittled as poor argument. When people resorted to personal insults, most often on online message boards, they did so because they had lost the argument and had no other legitimate reasons to disagree. In other words, attacking the person was a sign of capitulation or desperation.

But now, we are in the age where Donald Trump is a leading presidential candidate. Personal insults fly from his Twitter feed daily. And what's more, when he insults Mexicans immigrants as rapists; when he disparages John McCain’s prisoner-of-war courage; when he goes after Megyn Kelly, blood coming out of her wherever; when he calls for banning Muslims from our country, he only rises in the polls.

Behavior that we once would have all labeled “unpresidential” or “unbefitting of the office” now leads a narcissistic reality TV braggart to the top of the polls of a major political party. When and why did it become acceptable to denigrate people as losers? What does it say about our society that this is not merely tolerated but lauded and admired?

Politics have always been dirty and underhanded. Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel with pistols. Still, this political season I despair at how far we have fallen.

My only satisfaction and hope comes from the fact that the man who famously tweeted, “No one remembers who came in second—Walter Hagen,” came in second in Iowa (No. 2, as in "2 Corinthians"). I also want thank whatever clever person came up with the stunt of making redirect to Trump’s Wikipedia page.

But engaging in that schadenfreude means I become part of the problem. How can I respond differently to his latest #Trumpertantrum if, by even following this hashtag, I am feeding the frenzy?

Many Americans respond by tuning out. According to a recent poll, only 26 percent of Americans identify as Republicans and 30 percent as Democrats. Sixty percent of Americans would consider an Independent candidate because they are so disillusioned with both political parties. Voter turnout, even in presidential elections, rarely hits 60 percent of eligible voters.

But apathy does nothing to counter the abusive tone of our political discourse. As a middle school librarian, I try to think of how we teach our children to respond. One tactic for disarming bullies is to ignore them. If the media would agree to stop reporting Trump’s tweets, insults and tantrums, maybe he would go away. His narcissism feeds on attention, and as I know from our students who continually act out, negative attention is still attention.

We teach our students not to be passive bystanders — witnesses to bullying — but instead to be brave “upstanders.” Jeb Bush has been an upstander, criticizing Trump’s tactics and insults from the beginning, while wilier candidates, such as Ted Cruz, stayed silent until he became their target. And that’s the problem: If we don’t stand up to personal insults, the bullies will come after us — only there will be no one left to defend us.

Then again, maybe that’s the solution. If we let Trump rant on for long enough, he will have no one left to denigrate. Like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, Trump’s frequent insults might lose their novelty and power as they become diffuse, gradually insulting the entire population. Maybe all we have to do is wait.

Sara Stevenson

Former public school librarian