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Trumpism brings out the worst in us on the National Mall

Editor’s note: see two updates below the original column based on additional information and developments, including extended video, subsequently emerging about  the controversy that adds new perspective.

Perhaps by now you’ve seen troubling footage of students from Covington Catholic in Kentucky, surrounding, jeering, and harassing several Native Americans on the National Mall in Washington, DC. If you haven’t you should:

The opposite of Making America Great Again.

While you’re at it, watch the more disturbing clips here and here that add greater perspective to the deplorable behavior. Ironically, the students were in town to participate in the March for Life, in theory a celebration of the value of each human being. They may need some remedial instruction now.

The targets of the pubescent mob were also in town for an event, the Indigenous Peoples March. They have the right to the expression of their speech in a public place, including without harassment.

The morons from Covington Catholic shamed themselves with their behavior, amplified by the fact the primary target of their mockery is also a Vietnam Veteran. A man who has expressly earned that right to speech that all Americans are granted. His dignified remarks after the harassment are quite a contrast to what he had just endured.

One could say this is just teenagerism run amok. Who among us in our pre-adult years has not either engaged in some form of bullying or at best declined to intervene in bullying because the perceived social cost of intervention felt too high? Probably most of us, who are perhaps lucky to not have cell phone cameras memorializing our sins.

But, bullying in schools halls, in the lunchroom, or on the playground (while bad) is not the same as bullying fellow citizens in open spaces in our nation’s capital. And juvenile bullying is not confronting one’s elders with zero respect in a public place while those elders, just like you, are in that capital to engage in their own right to free expression.

Were these the only ingredients in this shame then perhaps we could move past this quicker with a collective lament and hope for better days. Yet, this is but the behavior of a Trump rally in gratuitous, public spectacle. Bedecked in MAGA attire and cheering “Build the Wall!” the purpose of the miscreants is clear: mockery, jeering, and confrontation. Trumpism in pure form. Their point is not political activism or winning a debate, it’s being confrontational and brash, regardless of the illogic of their actions or words.

This incident is an expression of the Charlie Kirk-ization of American politics. I made the libs cry, you see. Therefore I was right and just. Also, MAGA.

Sadder still, these students ostensibly in DC to support the dignity of life are from a Catholic school. Say what you want about the Catholic Church and its fall in this era of systemic revelations of the widespread cover up of sexual abuse, the doctrine and teaching of the Church on the dignity of each human is clear. So too is the culture of the Church that is common be it if one finds oneself in a rather liberal Catholic fellowship to a very conservative one. Acting like a public jackass is frowned upon.

Which brings us back to the pubescent MAGA crowd. Every adult responsible for them should be asking themselves some questions. The parents who raised them. The teachers who have molded them. And the chaperones responsible for them on this trip. I endorse what Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post proposed:

“The cure to ignorance is understanding: Covington Catholic High School should organize a spring break project doing service on a Native American reservation.”

To their credit, the Diocese of Covington has already responded with an apology that is a good start:

“We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion. 

More importantly, this disgrace on the Mall should be a jolt for all of us. The behavior of the kids is a few short steps away from cheering on the public execution of the condemned (dare I say even, “enemies of the people”). It’s mob rule. Exactly what the Founding Fathers sought to avoid in our Constitution.

This is the true natural state of man. We aim toward higher things but are capable of the worst of the low. A common thread in the course of human history, covering the full spectrum of political ideology and religious faith.

This should be a gut check that whatever our politics, whatever our beliefs, whatever candidates we support…we should behave better.

Those kids will receive their just deserts. And probably more. Heaven help the ones who are found by the digital mob. The issue for us is how we choose to respond.

Will we demand better of our own children? Will we support and encourage environments that expect better of them? Will we speak up rather than permit such idiocy to continue when it occurs? Will we demand better of ourselves and our peers in politics and society?

I hope so. We got a window into what the worst of Trumpism can reveal in human behavior today. And it’s fucking ugly.

Noon Eastern 1/20 Update: Additional information has come out about this incident and related events since this column was published yesterday afternoon. My colleague Steve Berman has summarized a number of the key revelations that add perspective to the event. There’s an additional question of critiquing media coverage of all this that Steve and others have raised. I’ll leave that to others as I’ve digested very little of it. A few thoughts on the events though based on the additional information:

  • More recent video shows Nathan Phillips and his small group walking toward the kids as the sequence of events begins. It makes clear what was not in the original video clips: how the confrontation started.
  • That additional video also shows many of the kids parting to let the small group pass through. That was the wise course. The rest of their party, especially the young man whose face is now plastered on news coverage across the country should have done likewise. Letting a small group pass through a much larger group in a public place is both polite and prudent.
  • Regardless of the choice to let them pass, the behavior of a number the kids as they choose to remain clustered around the group is not good. At all. As was abundantly clear in the original video clips and thus the root of the controversy.
  • There is also an issue of other protesters, separate from Nathan Phillips and his group, who engaged the kids and at times said either offensive or derogatory things to them. That’s terrible, though not related to the primary incident. And nothing about that wrong to the kids makes their actions toward Phillips right.
  • And, the last two points in particular beg a lingering question from the start of all this: where were the parents/chaperones? They don’t need great oversight given their age, but leaving a large group of high school students on their own, without supervision, in a politically charged environment (especially since the kids were a walking collection of MAGA gear) with all the marches and protests the past several days in DC seems rather unwise. As it very much proved to be.
  • My original critique and point of what went wrong and the window into how the decline of political discourse, including Trumpism, is affecting society as a whole stands. Everyone has a role to play in making it better. Not one of is better for this nonsense.

6:15 am Eastern 1/21 Updatemore video emerged of the event on Sunday and expanding on one point in the previous update, ongoing media coverage over the weekend, including citing Mr. Phillips’ statements after the fact, proved to be in many cases inaccurate. Robby Soave at Reason has one of the better takes on that media coverage, which is worth a read. Soave also updated his assessment to include the full statement of the student who became the primary face of the encounter with Phillips (I’m not naming the student because he’s a minor receiving more than enough grief).

Among the most compelling points in the most extended footage that came out later on Sunday is the degree to which the group of students endured some real crap from the “Black Hebrew Israelites” who are at best, not nice people with some serious issues. For all the heat the students have taken, those kids deserve credit for how they handled those boorish, unprovoked insults.

Speaking of that heat, my original column alluded to the digital mob that was likely to come after the students. While I was highly critical of the students, it is equally a shame on society that the inevitable outcome of such incidents is those involved (and their families) getting swarmed with insults and threats. That’s wrong. And it appears to be even worse than one might fear. Whatever mistakes were made in the heat of a confused moment of nonviolent confrontation, nobody deserves that.

And on the topic of confused moments, the evolution of this story is exceptional. Soave is right about the media coverage. The additional context of the more complete video takes the starch out of what I still think are fair critiques of the students behavior. They should have parted in full to let the small Native American group led by Mr. Phillips pass and some of them choose poorly as the that small group remained in their midst. But, the totality of the video is clearly more complex than the original narrative.

On that score, were I to re-write the above column now, roughly a day and a half later, it would have a different tone and be less harsh on the students based on the totality of events. In the urge to correct, however, I think some on the right are being too quick to swing to the “but fake news!” side of the column. The students are not blameless and the incident is still an object lesson on the tone of our discourse, even if it is now understood to be a more complex one.

But, much like the left and some in the media jumping to comparing these students to the worst of racists, some on the right are now saying there was nothing to see here, move along. We all retreat to our tribes corners and confirm our priors. Our ability to handle nuance is gone. And I’m not sure how we recover that.

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