During the first presidential debate, Donald Trump, a candidate for the office of the President of United States of America, referred multiple times to Barack Obama as “your president” when speaking to Hillary Clinton. The sentiment is not a new one nor one that has not been heard a number of times before. 1
Speaking anecdotally, a number of my near and less-near relatives will often and rather emphatically refer to Obama in ways that are equal parts in poor taste and emblematic of an attitude that has pervaded the republican party and perhaps the nation at large. This attitude has extended to a recent rash of would-be democratic voters withholding their vote from Hillary on the grounds that she is not “their” candidate, as if they can really stake any sort of ownership to any candidate, who are themselves people with ideas sure to diverge, at least in one or two ways, from the voting population at large.
In the latter instance, the condition afflicting former Bernie Sanders’ supporters 2 is something that has crippled the Democratic party’s attempt to swing back to normalcy, with a disenfranchised left emerging from the primaries rubbed raw by rhetoric characterized by dismissiveness if not vitriol—both sides determined to spike the ball in the end-zone as sure as victory was assured and contradictorily assuming everything would fall into place with the result decided.
Having buried the lede, the purpose of this post is not to harp or impose voting standards or criterion on anyone. 3
If there is one thing that has been made more clear by the nature of this past election cycle, it is the dangers of political rhetoric. These dangers are manifold. Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous on one level in the manner of a promise, or a threat – the first sort of danger comes through not in what he is saying but the promise that those words will birth actions that live up to the violence of the threat and its delivery. This danger is potential energy, and it is the kind that can be avoided. 4
The second kind of danger is the danger rhetoric subtly evokes in people, the ways in which lies can give way to genuine belief. This danger’s edge is almost too keen to feel at first, yet is in many ways as real as the former. While the one is the hypothetical danger of the concretely horrific, the latter is the inevitable danger of something that already fucking happened. The damage of Trump’s policies is a specter haunting us from November, but the real damage of his campaign’s rhetoric has already been felt.
Anecdotal claims catch a lot of flak, and deservedly so. Anecdotes can be used as shields against broader systemic issues that people would rather ignore. 5 These sorts of claims abound in any instances where groups are involved, and often use the experiences of individuals to prop up systems. That shit is a fallacy, and is terrible. I am going to use an anecdote here, but I think it is a bit different:
Dujie and I have been blogging off and on for a while, and we do not have a huge readership. His interest in politics is real, and he brings real knowledge to the table in his discussion of it. My opinions towards politics tend to latch themselves more to the atmosphere surrounding elections than the practicalities of their results. I live that atmosphere, but, like many, can only guess at policies’ results using the tools for research available to me (which I should use more, and more intelligently, as should everybody) and intuition (which I should use less).
The nature of this election has been good for readership. There is a lot of content out there, but there is also a healthy appetite for that content – urgency is high. When we publish something, more people have read it, and more people come commenting, and messaging. As, our leanings are pretty clear, there have been a number of Trump supporters who have come commenting, which we welcome despite our differences. Trump supporters are the people who are done the greatest disservice by his rhetoric. Trump’s primary appeal—and the structure from which his arguments begin—is similar to how marketers sell products. He begins by identifying an issue with you, a problem with yourself. He is not specific, but speaks broadly as one would when writing a horoscope or selling wrinkle cream or zinc supplements at whole foods. 6 Person becomes people. People becomes country. We are a nation of the afflicted, and he is our cure. 7
Donald Trump’s rhetoric presupposes inadequacies in human beings and paints the causes for those inadequacies on the faces of people who are different. When you see people with special needs, people who are old, poor, and too young to know any better, casting hate speech into the shitstorm that is social media, you can see the damage the past year has already done – damage that lives independently from policy. Politicians now will say anything to get elected, but freedom of speech is not only a right, it is a privilege, and if there is an appeal to this post that appeal is to exercise that privilege with the dignity it should be afforded. Donald Trump’s words have already made America a worse place and the hate speech he preaches (that for him, might be a fiction) has already become the reality for those he has targeted.
He has found supporters with gaps in their lives, those with wounded pride, those who have lost loved ones, those who are despondent with their lots in life. He has taken their collective agony and loss and made it something universal to soften the blow – ‘the problem isn’t with you,’ he says, ‘it is with the country. The problem is you are being wronged, the tragedy and loss and hopelessness you feel isn’t your tragedy, its everybody’s, and that tragedy has a cause with the face of Barack Obama.’ He has used the vacuum left by sadness, hopelessness and fear and filled people’s souls with hate.
Trump is currently running for the office of President of the United States. He also repeatedly denies that Barack Obama is his President. Let’s talk about the dangers of refusing ownership and the rhetorical fuckery at play when a presidential candidate consistently uses the term “your president” when describing the sitting president.
I have always been leery of people who take to the “respect the office” argument in these sorts of discussions as if those words brokered no discussion and were somehow an end-all, be-all to how one should speak of or consider the sitting president. I think looking to the protests being made in relation to the anthem-as-metaphor for national respect are a good analogy here. The office of the president is significant to citizens of the country, it being the unquestionably highest elected office in the nation, and the only one to carry with it symbolic significance equal to or exceeding its practical equivalence. If respect is indeed earned as the cultural idioms of our parents’ would suggest, it seems that the office of the president is, if anything, something imbued with meaning worthy of respect only in the hands of the right individual. This is likely what many people mean when they say “your president,” they are expressing that the values of the current president are not in keeping with their own and are disowning him as such.
Unfortunately, this attitude strays from a simple lack of respect for the man in presidential office by rhetorically constructing an alternate universe implying that Republican voters have been living in a state erected against their choosing, presided over by a dictator – an outsider – foisted to power on the backs of an unknowable other. This premise rests on the fiction that democracy can be uncompromising, and it supplies a notion of foreign-ness to the “other side” who becomes somehow less American for doing what they thought was best for the country’s welfare.
The birther myth is the bedrock to this dreamscape, offering an out-clause for a vocal minority who once cried “respect the office!” in indignation when criticism was lofted at George W. Bush’s decisions and policies. The “not MY president” rhetoric harmonizes beautifully with the birther myth, forming a symphony of bigotry filling the ears of a vocal white minority, discarded relics of our country’s worst years, with Donald Trump taking his place at the head of the orchestra. The ideas are not new ideas, but Trump’s shamelessness lends renewed boldness to organizations and people who have seen the world changing and felt the hatred that was their voice become shriller and lonelier as history 8 continues to leave them behind. In its best case, Trump’s candidacy is the death wail of a once-dangerous animal rendered toothless in its senescence; at worst, it is a rabid thing, infecting a younger generation and perpetuating itself into the future.
When you consider the birther myth and “not MY president” rhetoric side by side, “respect the office” gets complicated. The same people who once admonished others to respect the office of the president can now turn around and insinuate that the sitting president is a foreigner legally disqualified for the presidency. Taking this as truth 9 the “not my president” line moves from an expression of dissent 10 to something starkly literal, an assertion that the sitting president is a foreign dictator 11 in a country of which the utterer no longer considers themselves a part. I mean, if the President of the United States isn’t your President, how American can you really be?
Word games aside, it is time to get in on that fearmongering game. Monday’s debate concluded with an interesting question, one that is emblematic of this election cycle at large:
One of you will not win this election,” said the moderator, Lester Holt. “Are you willing to accept the outcome as the will of the voters?”
Think about this. In a presidential election in the United States of America, a country which has held 44 presidential elections, a debate moderator trembles and asks the two individuals running for office, whether or not they will accept the outcomes as the will of the voters. This is the stage divisiveness has set for us. The Trump campaign and the arguments that birthed it are an agent sowing seeds of distrust and granting validation to the most paranoid and conspiratorial aspects of a population looking for someone to blame. In so doing, the reputation of the presidential office has already been dismissed as selective. In a world of “Your President” and “My President” the states cease being united, and that’s where we are today. It’s fucked.
The result of this attitude is a competitive, political divisiveness, that values winning and strength as virtues and not means to the betterment of the country as a whole. This attitude is too often carried to the extent that failure in the country is lauded by the opposition, if for no other reason than being an opportunity to hang points on an imaginary scoreboard with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. If the country is failing, it’s your fault too. If you are a citizen of the United States, Barack Obama is your sitting president. If you are running for the office of President of the United States, Barack Obama is your sitting president. If you are failing to confirm a Supreme Court Justice, you are working to directly undermine one of the 3 pillars of the US government, the government that people pay you to serve. Rooting for the president to fail doesn’t make you a patriot, it makes you an idiot. You fucking live here too.