In conversational news last week, former President Donald Trump told ABC News it was just “common sense” for a crowd of his supporters to chant “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump’s vice president, after Pence refused to do something he couldn’t legally do anyway, which was nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Had the crowd reached Pence and literally strung him up — like angry white folks used to do with black folks back when America was “great” — I’d like to think Trump would not have nodded approval and called it a triumph for “common sense.”
Without presuming to speak for Mr. Trump, I’m thinking he just admires incendiary words, feeling they convey passion and knowing how well they have served his own political career.
If he has that fondness, he’s not alone. Incendiary words are easier to find these days than customer service reps who serve customers.
Go to a football game or a NASCAR event — or even some golf tournaments, the epicenter of polite silence — and you may hear the “Let’s Go Brandon” chant. Or its less euphemistic original version. Florida Congressman Bill Posey invoked “Brandon” at the end of a speech on the House floor last week, days after Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar posted a meme of himself killing fellow Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a sword.
Jon Gruden, a well-regarded pro football coach, was fired a few weeks ago over a series of emails in which, among other things, he repeatedly used homophobic slurs and invoked a crude racial stereotype to mock the black executive director of the NFL Players Association.
New Jersey’s celebrity State Senator-elect Ed Durr, a trucker who upset the state’s sitting Senate president, warmed up for the race over several years on social media by calling U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez a “pedophile” and dismissing Islam as a “false religion,” which will come as news to the 1.8 billion people who embrace its beliefs the same way Ed Durr embraces his own. Durr added that the founding prophet of Islam, Mohammad, is also a pedophile.
Extreme rhetoric by public and elected officials seems to emanate more from the right these days, though conservatives hardly have an exclusive on it. Once you incorporate public rallies, civilian remarks and social media, it’s a practice both left and right embrace.
Whatever the source of the insults, accusations, warnings and threats, we find ourselves frequently told these days that “we’ve never been this divided.”
For better or worse, it’s not true.
People who say “we used to disagree, but in a civil way” forget the 1960s, when anti-war protestors were chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” and civil rights advocates were not only vilified as uppity race-mixers, but murdered.
I wasn’t around for the Civil War, but I have to think it was more than polite disagreement when we killed about 750,000 of each other — which, extrapolated to today’s population, would be about 7 million.
Some of us have always been angry, disgusted, profane and vulgar. It seems louder today because social media makes it easier for angry people to join up with other angry people and it gives everyone a megaphone.
Before social media, Senator-Elect Ed Durr would have been venting only to his family, friends and the occasional waitress at a truck stop. He might have written a letter to the newspaper.
In the olden days, Jon Gruden’s crude remarks about women and gays and a black man would have been wisecracks between two guys sitting in a bar. Now they’re enshrined for the world to peruse and Gruden is suing the NFL, claiming the league leaked his own words to ruin his reputation.
Over the past half century we’ve modified our public discourse, almost always for the better. We’ve acknowledged that dismissive stereotypes serve no one, while today’s gay jokes, race jokes, ethnic jokes, wife jokes and the like sound less like mocking the subject.
Those jokes and comments did not, however, disappear. For a while they retreated from public to private places. Then along came the Internet, a bulletin board where users could be as vitriolic as they pleased and rarely if ever be held accountable.
The ‘Net too often provides a shield for cowards. But whether thoughtless, ignorant or cruel words come from a known public official or a troll in Mom’s basement, those words add up to a chilling truth: A lot of people don’t want to work things out. They want to fight, win and have it all their way.
This is nothing new. It’s how most societies and countries have operated for most of history.
America was, in theory, set up to be different. We would try to listen to everyone, tolerate everyone, give everyone a place and a voice. We haven’t gotten there yet, but after 238 years we’re closer.
Brushing aside “Hang Mike Pence” chants as an expression of “common sense” misunderstands both lynching and the idea of America.