Donald Trump took to the stage in Tulsa last weekend to brag about how he slowed down coronavirus testing in order to make the number of reported cases smaller. He regaled his 6,200 supporters with talk about the “phenomenal job” he has done against what he called the “Kung flu,” as the U.S. COVID-19 death toll approached 120,000.
Trump did not express sympathy for the families of George Floyd or Brionna Taylor or other victims of racial injustice. He said nothing to acknowledge the legitimacy of calls for an end to institutional racism, and he made no effort to unify a grieving and frustrated nation.
Instead, as he always does, Donald Trump took the low road. He lumped all the peaceful protesters together as “the left wing mob” of “thugs” – “very bad people” doing “very bad things.” According to Trump, “If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control.”
The media described Trump’s address as another battle in the “culture war.” Why is his schtick a culture war? Culture is defined as the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, and scholarly pursuits.
Trump isn’t waging a culture war. He is trying to lead a race war. Or, put most charitably, he is trying to wage a war against culture.
Trump’s divisive, simplistically hateful rhetoric polarizes the population by feeding an “us vs. them” mentality that elevates identity over policy. He promotes belligerence as a positive value, with predictable consequences. Under Trump, hate crimes are way up, and mental health surveys show record levels of anxiety, depression, and feelings of alienation.
Our current discussions over race are important, but they point to only one part of the problem. The problem is not just one of bigotry; it is also one of humanity. We as a society have lost our human values. We have forgotten how to love and respect one another. The George Floyd case is a symptom of a basic disease afflicting our communities, where distrust, disrespect, disdain, animosity, and reflexive hate have become the conversational and behavioral norms. Civility has given way to caustic and coarsened antagonism.
Young men – like the police who murdered George Floyd and Eric Garner – operate in this toxic environment, and they act in accordance with the behaviors that are so predominant everywhere, with a callous indifference to the humanity of others.
Rhetoric reflects reality. At a 2010 graduation speech at the University of Michigan, accused “socialist” President Obama complained about the labeling and personal insults that now dominate political discourse. He spoke eloquently about the importance to a healthy democracy of maintaining a basic level of civility in our public debate. He warned of the danger to a democratic government of “vilification and over-the-top rhetoric,” because it undermines democratic deliberation, and interferes with rational problem-solving. Unwittingly foreshadowing the deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner and so many others, he also tied these principles to the streets where those men met their deaths, by making the point that government is not just the national state: “Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities.”
Solutions start at home, where we all need to do better. Scroll down the comments section of any topical Facebook post on a Coronado community page, and you will often see a consistent pattern: compliments and humorous comments are drowned out by snarky, hateful, ad hominem attacks. Verbal brawls break out with predictable regularity. Even in our idyllic beach town, there are dark alleys of dangerous hate.
We, as a society, have devolved to a coarse, ugly, inhuman manner of social existence. Protected by the physical distance between computers and phones on the Internet, we have become persistently rude, reactive, and mean. We have lost our abilities to love and to empathize, and we are no longer instinctively kind. We are a violent, angry, ignorant, resentful mob, quick to anger, and itching for a fight.
Fellowship, brotherhood, peace, thoughtfulness, and love of our fellow man are in short supply. We need more than solutions to police brutality. We need to remake our culture and rediscover our human values. This means more than not being racist. It means more than being anti-racist. It means being anti-antagonist, and anti-hate, in all of its forms.
Joe Biden was not my first choice for the Democratic ticket, and he is far from ideal. But he at least embraces humanitarian ideals of empathy, compassion, and kindness. We will all be better off with a leader who champions humanity rather than hate.
Ken Fitzgerald is a Coronado resident and trial lawyer practicing business litigation. A former professional musician, he plays principal trumpet in the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra and volunteers with Bugles Across America, playing Taps at funeral services for military veterans.