To those who are voting for Donald Trump: How do you reconcile any of what Trump stands for with what the United States of America is all about?
We should all think long and hard about Hillary Clinton's throwaway line condemning and dismissing the “deplorables” she said make up half of Donald Trump’s supporters — a comment she only retracted to the extent of saying “half” was the wrong percentage.
It’s easy to seize on the statement as a gaffe that suggests Clinton doesn’t understand the job she seeks: No American President can write off millions of Americans as hopeless or unworthy of respect. It’s also easy, especially in New York, to agree with Clinton and characterize many Trump followers as intolerant bigots.
But behind the political gamesmanship of the moment is a big question that’s been haunting the campaign for months: Exactly how much respect or deference do the rest of us owe to the extremists flocking to the Trump campaign, who have already signaled their willingness to tear down the vital institutions of democracy, including tolerance itself?
The question first occurred to me last November, when video footage showed an activist named Mercutio Southall being cursed, punched and beaten at a Trump rally as the candidate shouted “Get him the hell out of here!” and the next day affirmed the violence, saying “maybe he should have been roughed up.”
The pattern repeated itself at various Trump rallies: violence against protesters, egged on from the podium by the candidate himself. It soon became clear that some of the scummiest people in America were attracted to, and endorsing, Trump’s words and campaign message — notably, Ku Klux Klan leader and convicted felon David Duke, along with a band of mostly anonymous online hatemongers who call themselves the alternative right (alt-right for short).
“The reason a lot of Klan members like Donald Trump is because a lot of what he believes in, we believe in,” said one miscreant, the self-described imperial wizard of the Virginia-based Rebel Brigade Knights of the KKK.
Trump has repeatedly given a big sly wink to the racists and xenophobes. In February, after pretending he didn’t know Duke or what he stood for, and offering the childish lie that his earpiece wasn’t working when the question was put to him by a journalist, Trump grudgingly said, “I disavow, OK?”
No, not OK.
Trump has never apologized for widely promoting the conspiracy theory that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. He has never retracted the lie that he saw “thousands and thousands of people” in Jersey City cheering on 9/11 as the World Trade Center collapsed.
In July, journalists reported that Trump had retweeted an anti-Semitic image — Clinton’s face backed by stacks of money and the image of a Star of David — created by an alt-right activist.
“They took the star down,” Trump said in a speech. “I said, ‘Too bad, you should have left it up.’ I would have rather defended it, just leave it up, and say, ‘No, that’s not a Star of David. That’s just a star.’ ”
When Trump was told on “Meet the Press” that he’d retweeted a quote from the Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini — “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep” — he responded by telling host Chuck Todd: “What difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else? It’s certainly a very interesting quote.”
He continued: “I have almost 14 million people between Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and all of that. And we do interesting things. And I sent it out. And certainly, hey, it got your attention, didn’t it?”
Trump’s commitment to “do interesting things” included hiring a campaign CEO, Stephen Bannon, who proudly calls the Breitbart media organization he ran “the platform for the alt-right.”
All of this could turn out to be just another zany presidential campaign in which some wacky characters and statements parade across the public stage and things return to normal after Election Day. Or it could be something else.
After the defeat of fascism in World War II, philosophers like Karl Popper and John Rawls wrestled with the paradox of tolerance: the reality that a tolerant, open society can end up committing suicide by welcoming people who are bent on weakening and destroying that openness.
KKK terrorists don’t deserve anybody’s respect or regard, and anybody who traffics in anti-Semitism should be condemned early and often. Many mainstream Republicans, and now Clinton, have been sounding the alarm that we need to nudge the extremists back to the political wilderness they came from.
That will be true long after Election Day. And it’s everybody’s job to make it happen.