To lay our current intolerant, thin-skinned, and superficial attitudes at the feet of Donald Trump is to oversimplify, for I still debate whether Trump was the instigator, the catalyst, or the end result of the violence with which we treat opposing opinions today.
There is no doubt (for we have ample video and audio proof) that in the runup to the 2016 election, Donald Trump encouraged violence at his rallies, using belligerence instead of intelligence to beat down his opponents and their supporters. Many of us believed that the advocacy of threat and physical harm would serve as just another deal-breaker in an unsuccessful bid for the presidency.
Instead, it struck a nerve, albeit a primitive and atavistic one, appealing especially to voters for whom the gathering of facts, attention to history and government, and the greatest commandment in Christendom no longer applied. Love my neighbor was replaced by the Trumpian greatest commandment: belittle, shout down, and, if necessary, physically assault thy neighbor. The Proud Boys et al. were listening.
There has always been political divisiveness in this country—it is the very nature of politics—but the rancor was ratcheted up to 11 that year and has only risen since. Seven years later, we live in the era of the preposterous, where insurrectionists are hailed as martyrs, harebrained politicians are touted as rebels, and anyone advocating a humanitarian approach to the war in the Middle East is called an eliminationist—a word I never knew existed until recently, though its meaning is easy to discern.
The lunacy does not end there but begins. Advocating a cease-fire in Gaza is either anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim, and pointing out the savagery of an attack on innocent concertgoers or families in their homes is considered partisan. Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, who has been an outspoken voice for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, recently released a video that accused President Biden of supporting the genocide of Palestinians, then had to wait out and avoid a formal House rebuke for an earlier tirade. That resolution, brought by Marjorie Taylor Greene, the very limited representative from Georgia, wished to label the Oct. 18 protest in a House office building, in which Ms. Tlaib accused Israel of genocide, as an "insurrection." The request was unusual since, for Ms. Greene, Jan. 6, 2021, was little more than an exercise in participatory democracy. Her hypocrisy is less of an exception than the rule.
So here we are, divided and mainly ignorant of Middle Eastern history but eager to grab on to the shibboleth du jour: anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, genocidal, un-American, eliminationist. We throw terms around almost as if we know what they mean, and every day, a teacher, a professor, a politician, or a president is accused of crossing some imaginary line drawn by a social media influencer. And every day, verbal and often physical attacks on Jews and Muslims occur, the victims often guilty of nothing more than a non-partisan yearning for a cease-fire and the protection of non-combatant men, women, and children.
Nor is it an easy time to be an educator, for the belief that schools and colleges are places to foster thought is under attack daily. Hourly. Minutely. Opening up a debatable item for discussion is too triggering for the thin-skinned, and taking a side on an issue for the purpose of discussion risks accusations of bigotry, bias, or intolerance. Thoughtless opinions are rewarded on social media, while serious and scholarly essays are too long to read with our TikTok attention spans.
Not all of this lies at the feet of Donald Trump. But we created him, nurtured him, venerated him, and allowed him to become the putative voice of Americans. In the chaotic world of 2023, his voice sounds weak, feckless, and moronic. He has taught us nothing other than to distrust our humanitarian tendencies and adopt anger, intimidation, and hostility as guiding principles. In a world with thousands of nuclear weapons and nearly a half billion guns in America alone, that MAGA philosophy, with its puritanical and cynical denial of man's basic goodness, may make eliminationism a more useful word than we imagined. And the Middle East may be only the proving ground.