Do you have a sibling? A brother? A sister? Older? Younger?
When you were growing up, did they ever get you mad at them? I mean really, really pissed off? Ever want to slug him or her? I know there were moments like this with my older sister Mary, and I’m sure I provoked similar feelings in return.
But you don’t. Partially because you know your parents would punish you, but mostly because you knew it was wrong to do that. And you learned that, had it engrained on your mind, at an early age. By your parents, by your church, by your school.
But what if you could? The answer to that explains Trump’s legacy, and a lot of what is going on in this country today, such as the street battle in Portland.
The hallmark of Donald Trump, both as candidate and as president, has not been a particular policy position, or even some form of bigotry. Rather, its most consistent, enduring feature is a lack of impulse control, a giving in to the most immediate impulses, good or bad. As an example, after the recent attack in London, most leaders would have stopped and checked with their security team first, before issuing a public statement. Just like you or I would have thought about it—checked our professionals, our conscience—before hitting a sibling. Trump, on the other hand tweeted immediately, on the basis of a Drudge article, without consulting the CIA or his national security heads.
And this becomes his foremost effect on America, more than policy decisions like the proposed Muslim ban or his withdrawal from fighting climate change. Those steps, no matter how destructive, concern specific measures. This, on the other hand, represents a basic change in our national culture, with widespread impact in everyone’s lives. A New York Times article on the protests in Portland noted, “The short explanation, said many people in law enforcement and civil rights groups, is a collapse of inhibition.” More than anything else, this is the message Trump has sent and many Americans have absorbed. Not hate for Mexicans or Muslims; it is far more encompassing than that. Simply, you can act on your impulses, whatever they may be, without inhibition.
There are several examples of this phenomenon. Around the time of the election there was an outburst of anti-Semitic incidents, attacks on Jewish centers, synagogues and cemeteries.
Yet Donald Trump has never ginned up the country against Jews. Rather, coming from a New York City business environment he is extremely comfortable with them, while his daughter married one and converted. Jared Kushner, furthermore, is one of the president’s top advisers. So what is the link?
It is not that Trump attacked Jews. Rather, every step of his campaign, every utterance as president, has sent the message that impulse control is no longer practiced here, so you can do something about whatever grievances you may harbor. It doesn’t matter if the focus is Jew, or gays, or even people who do cosplay. Trump’s foremost message has not been to pick out a particular group, but to send the broader and more generalized message that it’s okay to take action on your own particular demons, and fight. Detective Elizabeth Wareing, the bias crimes coordinator at the Seattle Police Department, said of recent protests, “The lid is off.” But inadvertently she wasn’t just describing what is happening on the West Coast, she was summing up Trump’s effect on our national life.
The other example would be the rise of violent, fight club-like groups on both sides taking over protests, first in Berkeley, now in Portland.
During the sixties I participated in many protests and marches against the Vietnam War; I was actively involved and we felt deeply. In Portland this time, however, police confiscated batons, hatchets, a knife with a ten-inch blade, claw hammers, and battle shields. We had nothing like this, never dreamed of it.
Donald Trump’s greatest impact has not been his stance on a particular policy. Rather, it is a general change in the culture, a dropping of the restraints that family and civilization impose on our conduct. Whether or not this is Trump’s foremost legacy remains to be seen.