Bullying, Derision and Democracy Make Poor Bedfellows

On Sunday evening, January 8, 2017, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association honored the distinguished American actress Meryl Streep with its highest accolade for lifetime achievement in the cinematic arts, the Cecil B. Demille award. Characteristically, she chose to shine the spotlight elsewhere in her acceptance speech and her brief remarks sharply illuminated a major issue now confronting American democracy and politics. The comments that have garnered so much attention follow:

But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.[1]

Streep never mentioned Donald Trump by name in her reflection, but all in her audience surely, if not all in America, were familiar with his willingness—in the recent presidential campaign and since—to “other” specific groups in his efforts to mobilize a constituency around shared fear, mockery and bullying. The incident to which Streep specifically alluded found Trump ridiculing the chronic disabling condition of a New York Times reporter during a November 25, 2015 speech in South Carolina. Trump’s “performance” was ugly and it did indeed elicit his desired derisive laughter from his audience. He made a habit of such attacks on the dignity and civil rights of those different from himself, or those who dared to disagree with him during the campaign.

Streep was on firm ground as she reminded her audience that such actions demean not only those targeted, but those who undertake them and all who tolerate or encourage such ignorant hate. She was correct, too, to note that, more deeply, such actions simply cannot be countenanced in a diverse democracy that purports to accord equal standing to all of its citizens, irrespective of their skin color, gender, national origin or any other characteristic. In lieu of honoring this fundamental civil rights claim, Trump and his defenders have argued that not mocking and demeaning others constitutes “political correctness” since “saying what you mean is just plain honest talk.”

This is claptrap. Trump’s actions in South Carolina, and many times before and since, as he has attacked and sought to humiliate one group after another, have nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with signaling to his supporters that it is OK, as Streep noted, to hate and disparage others on no other basis than the fact that their skin color or some other attribute is different from your own. All devotees of freedom must call this hate mongering what it is and call on the soon-to-be chief executive to stop threatening the civil liberties of all in the nation with his insistent willingness to employ such dark rhetoric.

Trump has sought, and continues to garner power, in part by unleashing anger and hate. While the incident to which Streep pointed was especially egregious, the President-elect has evidenced a continuing pattern of such behavior. Given his narcissism and thin skin, Trump always responds on social media to any perceived public criticism, and the viciously small character of those responses underscores the appropriateness of Ms. Streep’s comments. Here, for example, is how the President-elect addressed the acclaimed actress’s remarks on Twitter: “Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hilary flunky, who lost big.”[2]

So, it was that he chose to debase Streep personally while simultaneously puffing himself up in his response to her comments. In fact, Streep is widely and rightly celebrated for excellence in her occupation around the globe and no thoughtful analyst of whom I am aware has judged that standing undue. Her talent is enormous and she has demonstrated it over and over again on stage and in film and won many awards in that process. More, neither Clinton nor, certainly, Streep, “lost big,” But Trump constantly seeks to aggrandize himself against others and demands obeisance to his claims of superiority. In truth, much of Trump’s campaign, including his demeaning of the Times reporter with a disability, point to him as engaged in giving permission to his followers to release the bigot within them and to revile others different from themselves or who may have different views.

I now turn briefly to Trump’s press conference last week, his first in many months. At that event, the President-elect refused to call on specific reporters as he assailed the legitimacy of their organizations as purveyors of “false news” or worse. These are the typical tactics of demagogues and they continue to corrode for his supporters both the idea that anyone independent of him can or should have legitimacy and standing in our politics, or that any view(s) other than his should be countenanced. This is dangerous, since freedom of speech and a free press are essential bulwarks of our democracy. Rather than acknowledge that fact, however, and submit his actions and proposed policies to vigorous public scrutiny and debate, Trump has instead repeatedly argued that all those who dare criticize his views or those he perceives as threatening for any reason, are not legitimate and not to be trusted. These are not the actions of a leader interested in governing in a free society in a fashion aimed at ensuring that it remains so.

Finally, in keeping with this pattern of behavior, Trump has targeted U.S. Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis (D-Ga.) with completely mendacious Twitter comments, following the legislator’s comment on January 13 that evidence that Russia had influenced the election had convinced him not to attend Trump’s inauguration and that he could not view him as a “legitimate President.” In response, the President-elect offered the following post on Twitter, each element of which was false:

Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad![3]

The President-elect’s comments suggested he was apparently unaware of the character of Lewis’ House district and that the congressman had endured multiple tear gas attacks and had his skull fractured in his decades of efforts to help African-American and other groups gain a semblance of equality in this nation.

Taken together, Streep’s comments highlighting Trump’s unprincipled willingness to “other” to gain power, his performance at his press event and his absurd attack on Lewis, whose “talk,” as Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) rejoined on Twitter, “has changed the world,” suggest an individual with little respect for civil liberties and the vital role they play in the protection of freedom and a shared social quest for equality, or for those who entrusted him with the high office he will shortly assume.[4] Rather, they remind one of the playground bully who gathers allies around the salacious demeaning of others perceived as outside the clan. This is dangerous stuff in a diverse polity and still more volatile when the targets are the standing and rights of specific groups in society as well as the freedom and legitimacy of the press.

If Trump’s behavior is to be believed, and there seems no reason to imagine he will suddenly shift course when he assumes office in coming days, our nation is in for a dark time as its citizenry charts whether to follow a charlatan and demagogue, or instead seek ways to hold him accountable for his behavior and his trampling of democratic norms and Constitutional precepts alike. The Trump Presidency is hardly positioned for an auspicious start.

 

Notes

[1] Daniel Victor and Giovanni Russonello, “Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech,” New York Times, January 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/08/arts/television/meryl-streep-golden-globes-speech.html Accessed January 8, 2017.

[2] Patrick Healy, “Donald Trump Says He’s Not Surprised by Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech,” New York Times, January 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/movies/trump-meryl-streep-golden-globes-speech.html Accessed January 9, 2017.

[3] Jessica Taylor. ”Trump Attacks Civil Rights Hero Lewis as ‘All Talk’ After he Questions his Legitimacy,” National Public Radio, January 14, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/01/14/509834319/trump-attacks-civil-rights-hero-lewis-as-all-talk-after-he-questions-his-legitim?ft=nprml&f=1014 Accessed January 14, 2017.

[4] Taylor, “Trump Attacks Civil Rights Hero,” National Public Radio, January 14, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/01/14/509834319/trump-attacks-civil-rights-hero-lewis-as-all-talk-after-he-questions-his-legitim?ft=nprml&f=1014 Accessed January 14, 2017.