TV shows and movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s, if my memory serves me well, tended to fall back on a predictable and likely lazy portrayal of bullies; beneath their abusive and violent exteriors hid a deeply insecure but ultimately redeemable human.
In the real world, however, the United States has elected a bully and conman president. The first presidential debate of 2020, in fact, put that harsh truth on display as well as offering ironic proof of the power of white male privilege.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden demonstrated the extremely low bar for white men with wealth and power. As I watched the circus between the conman clown and cartoonish career politician, I thought about “no excuses” charter schools where mostly Black and brown students are compelled to make eye contact, walk in straight lines, and conform to the most rigid rules of civility and behavior.
The expectations for the weakest among us in the U.S. are infinitely higher than for the most powerful—as demonstrated by Trump’s bullying and Biden’s doddering.
Let me be clear, my concern about the Trump/Biden debate is not a both-sides complaint. While Biden is a deeply flawed candidate and person, Trump is in a deplorable class all by himself.
The ultimately irony of Trump’s bullying and blatant racism on display at the debate is that it comes on the heels of the Trump administration claiming that anti-racism education is indoctrination and Nikki Haley’s celebrated claim at the RNC that the U.S. isn’t a racist country.
As the exposed tax returns have confirmed, Trump is mostly a conman not a gifted businessman. But more significantly his art of the con depends on his faith in bullying, a faith built on decades of evidence that those tactics do in fact work—because people who can benefit from tolerating the orbit of Trump are more than willing to suffer and fuel his bullying.
Conmen and bullies cannot survive, however, unless we allow them to exist. While those TV shows and movies of my youth seem naive and unrealistic, they did often expose the power of confronting bullies in order to disarm them.
One way Trump has survived and thrived is because pop culture and the media have been complicit in his bullying and lies.
After the debate, for example, The Washington Post offered a headline noting Trump had depended in “false facts” because the mainstream media refuse to use the word “lie” just like the media continue to suggest that using the word “racist” when warranted is somehow disrespectful.
Here is a missed lesson from the debate.
Debates are formal and structured arguments, events based on decorum and mostly academic expectations for discourse, argument, and facts.
Trump has spent his entire life existing in an ideology outside the parameters of rules, laws, and ethics/morality. As has now been reported, for example, Trump considers those who have died in the military to be “suckers” and “losers.”
To Trump, anyone who plays by any rules is a sucker and a loser.
Functioning outside the expectations of decency has allowed Trump to lie, project, gaslight, and bully his way to celebrity status and ultimately the White House.
It isn’t that Trump is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers (a characterization Trump would love to foster) but that Trump is stealing at poker while using a marked deck when almost everyone else refuses to admit that he is cheating.
For all his bumbling and loss of composure, Biden was correct to call Trump a clown, and despite the delicacies of proper behavior, to tell Trump to shut up. But most importantly, Biden hit the core of Trump by repeating that Trump cares only about Trump, and is willing to sacrifice anyone, including the U.S. public and even his own family.
Every Trump business scam is a monument to himself.
While it is true Trump is a racist, that likely sits inside a much larger fact that Trump considers everyone else to be suckers and losers, including his evangelical base (which he also mocks behind closed doors as he does the military).
There is no credible way to justify Trump as bully in chief, yet more than a third of the U.S. continues to support and even revel in his bullying.
Trump is a referendum on the American character, which is once again being exposed for its very worst qualities. The U.S. had to fight a war to end slavery, waited over 140 years to allow women to vote, and held out almost 190 years before acknowledging equality for Black Americans.
However, this is not an after-school special, and Trump is not redeemable.
The real question is whether or not the U.S. is redeemable, and I have my doubts.