On Monday, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned speech at the United Nations castigating its members for failing to meaningfully address catastrophic climate change.

On Tuesday, a friend of mine posted that her dad ought to “take a belt” to her to teach her some respect.

It is no secret that I neither like nor support Donald Trump. If you ask me why, I would tell you that he is a semi-literate serial liar and a self-serving grifter whose current con is a soft-pedal fascism that appeals to people who claim that “privilege” doesn’t exist but know damn well they don’t want to give up theirs. It is a statement backed by evidence, documented fact, and historical context. It should be evident to any rational, reasonable person. It should be reason enough.

But for me, it is not. For me, the fundamental reason is simpler, more personal, and much more visceral. It is the image of Trump spastically convulsing at a 2015 rally to publicly mock journalist Serge Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis. Trump, of course, lied about it (he said he’d never met Kovaleski despite having been personally interviewed by him repeatedly; he said it was just his standard “confused groveling” schtick despite him only ever using it for Kovaleski; and so on). His sycophants to this day still deny Trump would every deliberately lampoon someone’s disability on stage, despite four years of Trump’s public insults and bullying as counterexamples.

No matter what the apologists say, though, it is clear what he meant to do. As pointed out by fellow heartless hatemonger Ann Coulter (who actually said this as a means to defend Trump!), “he was doing a standard retard.” The cocked wrist, the flailing arms, the eyes agog and mouth agape… it is a deliberate parody of disability known to any schoolboy, a performative insult to dispatch on the playground. I know it because I did it when I was a kid. It was among a arsenal of put-downs like fag or pussy or jew that we thoughtlessly hurled at each other on a daily basis. It was, I think, more a product of social osmosis than deep-seated bigotry and cruelty, but bigoted and cruel it still was. In the decades since, I have learned the history of those words and they hurt they meant to weaponize. It is something for which I am deeply ashamed now.

So the sight of a (self-professed) billionaire presidential candidate on stage publicly mocking a man’s disability for laughs still elicits from me a deep and unforgiving revulsion. If he were age 9, I could call this thoughtless (though not harmless) bullying; but at age 69, I can only call it deliberate and malicious. Trump took a person whom he outranked in wealth, in health, in power, a person marginalized by disability and not present to fight back; and publicly humiliated him for it, belittled him for it, denigrated him for it. It is the image of a man of immense privilege taunting a person with less privilege… taunting a person because they have less privilege. It is the image of a man who enjoys cruelty.

On Monday, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned speech at the United Nations castigating its members for failing to meaningfully address catastrophic climate change.

On Tuesday, President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States Donald Trump mocked her anguish and her message in a tweet. “So nice to see!”

The man of privilege and cruelty is a role that Trump has reprised ad nauseum in the four years since his “standard retard” performance, from name-calling politicians to accent-shaming hurricane victims, from belittling sexual assault survivors in general to mocking Christine Blasey Ford in particular, from joking with fans about shooting Mexicans coming into the country to telling Congresswomen of color to get out of it. Cruelty is the defining feature of this Administration. The cruelty is a cancer of it, though not a bug. Cruelty is the point.

Trump’s cruelty is much like the man himself: infantile, lazy, narcissistic, petty, and crude. But that he has been elevated to the highest office in the United States has made his cruelty common and even accepted. Its mainstreaming only invites more toxic, damaging strains of cruelty to infect the body politic. It has metastasized into a full-blown backlash against the press, against science, against education; into MAGA rally-goers chanting for the deportation of American citizens; into neo-Nazis marching in the streets and running over protesters; into white supremacists sitting in the Cabinet and throwing refugees into cages and camps; into mass-shooters quoting Trump’s own words and talking points before slaughtering innocents.

Certainly these effects are not due solely to Trump himself: he is only the latest symptom of the disease. The GOP has been taking increasingly nativist and populist positions for the past half century, from the Southern Strategy in 60s to the Gingrich Revolution of the 90s. Conservatism itself has been reactionary, hierarchical, and anti-democratic since its 18th Century inception with Burke and de Maistre. But Trump’s version of dumb, crude, petty cruelty has an everyman appeal to it, accelerating its spread.

The spread is noticeable to me on social media. People across the spectrum, left to right and blue to red, have become increasingly political. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing: democracy requires an informed electorate to debate and dissect the issues of the day. I even once thought social media could be an excellent platform for this, and I have had vigorous debates with folks that I have found engaging and edifying. Unfortunately, much of the discourse on the right any more is aimed less and less at making a reasoned call for conservatism, and more and more at trolling the libs; at triggering the snowflakes; at owning the SJWs. How can you argue against a re-posted, stupid, hateful meme other than to point out its factual inaccuracies or its toxic undertones, only to be told you’re a PC oversensitive beta-boy who can’t take a joke? It’s not meditation, it’s mockery; not invitation, but insult; not conversation, but cruelty.

Trump’s public taunts should therefore not be surprising anymore, and yet his Tuesday tweet-mock of Greta Thunberg hit me with the same visceral punch as his disability mockery of Serge Kovaleski. It was the same display of overmatched, casual cruelty: a man of immense wealth, privilege, and power singling out a target with none of those gifts for public ridicule. Trump targeted a child who had overcome depression, mutism, and Asperger’s to launch a world-wide movement for the survival of our species, and summarily dismissed, denigrated, and mocked her for it: “She seems like a very happy girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”

It was breathtakingly cruel.

That same day, a friend of mine posted that her dad ought to “take a belt” to her to teach her some respect.

I don’t know how to make sense of that. I have known this person since middle school, and view them as a friend. They are as far right as I am far left, but they have always held to core principles grounded in Christian values that, if I can’t agree with, I can at least understand. “Cruel” is not a word I would ever use to describe them.

But they suggested a 16-year-old kid should be beaten with a belt. To teach her “respect.”

When I challenged them on this, their responses went from “I never said the word ‘beat'” (arguing semantics) to “I was just joking” (the Schrodinger’s Douchebag defense) to “Are you too ‘sensitive’ to take a joke?” (toxic masculinity) to “It was really about the need for respect” (self-awareness black hole) to the frightening “It’s not abuse if you love them” (the abuser’s argument). And most of the fifty comments on post are in defense of it.

I hope their post was simply thoughtless and careless, and that they might reconsider leaving it and the thinking that lead to it. I don’t want to believe they are petty, indifferent, or cruel. I don’t want to associate them — or any of the people I consider friends — with the insult-the-libs-at-all-costs mentality that is increasingly finding its way into my Facebook feed. I would like to one day see these people at a school reunion and remember the times we rode bikes or listened to CDs or plunked a few bucks to beat an arcade game; I don’t want to remember the time they advocated beating a child for speaking out about the climate, or fretted about white genocide, or justified the execution of an unarmed kid because he was shoplifting chewing gum, or when they said gay or trans-racial adoptive parents are the real child abusers… (To be clear, these are all from different people.) I hope their posts are same kind of thing as the (sigh) “standard retard” insult of my youth: thoughtless and stupid and wrong, but not meant with actual malice or cruelty; something to be deeply ashamed of, but to learn from and move on to being a better person.

But to salvage any meatspace friendship, I think I may need to step away from a cyberspace one. “Good fences make good neighbors,” they say, and so I’ll be unfollowing those folks. It has also been pointed out that I can be pretty damn preachy myself (take, for example, this entire frickin’ post), and so if my progressive proselytizing is getting under your skin, or reading this makes you write me off as an easily triggered snowflake cuck who needs to have a lie down in his safe space, then you should probably unfollow me back. You can always find the napkin art on Instagram.

In summary,

  1. Though this decay of public discourse has been going on for some time, the current President himself actively and willfully participates in its degradation, and some of his little cruelties have affected me profoundly.
  2. His public mockeries have made me ashamed and sick and angry. I don’t want to see the his daily display of petty cruelty, but because he’s the President and a media whore, I can’t escape them.
  3. If its constant exposure affects me, it likely affects other people too; and whereas it repudiates my beliefs, it might validate theirs. I think it has.
  4. I can’t tune out the President from agonizing me (along with all the other people he seemingly delights in trolling), but I can tune out people who seem to, more often than not, parrot his style. But it still sucks.

I’ll see you when I see you.

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