Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech exemplifies the commonly-held belief that Trump’s mocking Serge Kovaleski, a journalist with a disability, “should have ended” his campaign. But why? He kicked off his campaign by claiming that immigrants are rapists. He rose to political prominence by claiming our first black president wasn’t American. He bragged about grabbing women by our genitals. How is this worse?
Even Trump himself seems to realize this it was out of bounds. Ye shall know his sins by his cleanup act, which will take one of four approaches: (1) Gaslighting. The problem is not what Trump did, but the hyper-sensitive, PC, crazy people who are offended. (2) Minimizing. It would be bad to brag about grabbing women by the genitals, which constitutes felony sexual battery, but this was locker room talk. (3) flat out denying, such as claiming he never said Saudi Arabia should get nukes. Finally, (4) Instructing the public to see his actions differently (reinterpreting)—which was how he spun the Kovaleski incident.
His spin signals that even Trump recognizes he went too far—or would have, if he had mocked Kovaleski for his disability. His instinct to rewrite the script is correct. While a disconcerting proportion of the electorate believes bragging about genital grabbing is acceptable locker room talk (it’s no wonder they believe that transgender rights open the door for straight men to use women’s restrooms as a sexual hunting ground), few will admit that mocking a disabled person is acceptable.
I say few will “admit” because mocking disabled people is a staple of American culture, including on the left. Obama Administration officials described Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as “aspergery.” The President himself compared his unimpressive bowling scores to the Special Olympics (the White House issued an apology).
I say “admit” because 60% of students with disabilities report being bullied, compared to 25% of all students. Someone is raising and enabling those bullies.
I say “admit” because half of people shot by police have a disability.
I say “admit” because the movie industry that applauds Meryl Streep refuses to cast disabled actors to play disabled characters. The industry fawns over non-disabled people for what they deem the ultimate thespian feat: imitating disability.
So why is mocking Serge Kovaleski a bridge too far? I see two possibilities.
The first, which deeply troubles many disability advocates, is that disabled people are uniquely vulnerable, like children or pets (remember the outrage over Mitt Romney’s alleged mistreatment of the family dog? For many, it hit a bigger nerve than his promises to forcibly divorce same-sex couples). This is problematic under any circumstance: disabled people may be powerful, competent, and even mean. Disabled people have agency.
It’s particularly bizarre when applied to Serge Kovaleski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. Sure, Kovaleski has a rare condition that limits his mobility. But he was also part of a team that took down a popular New York governor. He had taken on powerful politicians long before Trump’s became one, and he’s still doing great work.
It’s also confusing when one compares Kovaleski to Trump’s other targets: children with deportable parents; women who have abortions; people who use health insurance through Obamacare (many of them disabled- a point that also gets left out of the Kovaleski narrative); a beauty pageant winner; the families of suspected terrorists. When the best intentioned people conclude that an attack on this highly-educated, professionally-accomplished journalist is the last straw, this should raise eyebrows.
Another explanation is that grownups in politics don’t act like this. Many in what today passes for polite society are embarrassed by Trump’s buffoonery while blithely ignoring that mainstream conservative policies kill disabled people. Adults bully the disabled through technical, detached conversations about repealing Obamacare, making millions uninsurable. Adults bully disabled people by labeling their political opponents bipolar, autistic, or “midgets.” The polite rules of politics demand that politicians bully disabled people by defending police brutality against us. Civility dictates that when politicians funnel money away from public schools and into charters that turn away students with disabilities they call it “school choice.”
Trump broke the rules of polite and clinical bullying, and conventional wisdom says that should have ended it. Meryl Streep’s speech called for civility and kindness toward people with disabilities, but not for an end to the policies that kill disabled people. I admire her and thank her for her bravery, but if it ends there, disabled people will be no better off.