In our old home where our son lived for the first two years of his life, there were rabbits throughout the neighborhood. We saw them constantly in our own yard, and he’d often point and laugh with wonder. Fast forward to a few weeks ago: my son and I were walking along a wooded area near our relatively new home. He pointed to a squirrel and asked in a somewhat confused tone, “Rabbit?” I responded, “No, that’s a squirrel, they live in trees and eat acorns.” He says, “Okay” and two seconds later we see a fox, and he asks again, “Rabbit?” I tell him no, and argue that he knows what a fox is. We’ve seen them in videos and in some of his books. Again, he says “Okay” only to point to a baby doe along the tree line and echo the same agonized question: “Rabbit?” The point of this exercise is likely obvious: no, everything is not a rabbit. There are squirrels and deer and foxes and all manner of woodland creatures living out here in the world. Rabbits are out here, too, but not every animal should be treated as such.
This is a simple approach that can be transcribed to American political discourse. All rhetoric is not the same, nor should it be treated as such. President Donald Trump is using a tactic, for his own political gain, that attacks democratic norms and numbs us to that which is not normal. On the evening of September 23, the president stood at the podium in the White House Press Room and did two things. First, he refused to clearly answer a question on whether or not he would support a peaceful transition of power should he lose this November’s election. Second, he noted that if [the United States] “got rid of ballots” that there would be no need for a transition. It would simply be a continuation.
Those prior statements each served as a small graze of the skin, designed to build calluses on the collective American psyche, so that when a grander blow was delivered, perhaps we wouldn’t feel a thing.
Trump has said many irresponsible things over the course of his administration. Those prior statements each served as a small graze of the skin, designed to build calluses on the collective American psyche, so that when a grander blow was delivered, perhaps we wouldn’t feel a thing. This was a blow. Until it comes to pass, the president will continue to raise doubt against mail-in ballots and make baseless allegations against the sanctity of the election. Experts, to include the Director of the FBI under Trump’s own administration, continue to explain that voter fraud is ultra-rare. And for many, the argument that Trump’s words are meant in jest or are not to be taken seriously seems to somehow continue to work. Analysts and commentators still question whether the country and world should take Trump at his word. His Republican colleagues sit in silence as he further erodes the norms and values of longstanding processes. And the ones who do speak go out of their way not to even mention him.
The words of the American president can move markets. Those words can erode relationships with allies. They can empower nefarious actors to engage in destructive or even violent conduct. They shouldn’t be treated as jokes or insincere off-hand comments, as though the leader of the free world is a late-night comedian. Those words can inspire foreign entities to continue their plans of interference and disruption of the American electoral process. They can and do damage the morale of our service members, affecting the good order and mission effectiveness of US military forces. Bottom line: not taking the President’s rhetoric as truth or taking him at his word makes our nation less safe.
When we don’t — or cannot — take our leaders at their word, we damage trust within institutions, and that damage tears at the fabric of modern society in ways we cannot fully fathom. The first Presidential debate was a raucous and utterly repugnant display, void of not only fact or articulation of plans or processes to make the country safer and pull it from its current strife, but also wanting of decency. Americans watched in horror as their president, on national television, refused to outright denounce white supremacists and the ideology they represent. “Stand back and stand by,” seeming to refer to the upcoming elections, in case things don’t fall in his favor. The leader of the free world could have easily been mistaken for the head of a failing state. Early polling indicates that Biden won the debate, but given the lost opportunity to hear about actual plans to steer the country out of crisis (and away from the next one) the debate was America’s to lose. When we lose the thread of the argument to hyperpartisanship and a cacophony of disorganized, combative speech, we lose sight of the bigger picture and inch ever closer to the potential failure of the Great Experiment. But let’s be honest with ourselves and each other: not every animal rustling in the woods is a rabbit. There are plenty of wolves hiding in those trees.