A few years back, I looked out the window and saw my then 6 year old daughter riding her bike in the driveway while my tweenaged son ran after her, swinging a baseball bat at the back tire of her bike. My daughter was laughing while my son wore an angry scowl on his face as he just missed the back tire of her bike. Since this isn’t actually the sort of behavior we encourage in the Trotter household, I immediately called to my son to stop and come explain himself to me.
He came over and assured me that they were just playing and he was being very careful not to actually hit his sister or her bike. He explained the he had worked out the timing of his swings so that he could make his fake baseball bat attack look realistic without running the risk of actually hitting her. Being a tweenager, the possibility of error or accident hardly existed in his mind, of course. So far as he was concerned, there was nothing to worry about because he was actually being very careful as he staged his faux “I’m going to beat my sister with a baseball bat attack”.
Rather than focusing on the safety issue, I pointed out something rather obvious to him: if he is deliberately creating the false impression that he is trying to beat his sister with a baseball bat, how does he suppose anyone who sees him will react? Will they say, “hey, look at that kid with amazing timing and gross motor skills playing harmlessly with that little girl”? Or will they say, “oh my gosh, it looks like that kid’s trying to kill that little girl with a baseball bat!”
I could see a little light bulb going off in his head. I pointed out that his father, who has PTSD from growing up in a violent home where people actually had been hit with baseball bats from time to time, would have had an automatic, unthinking and extreme reaction to the sight of his son swinging at baseball bat at his sister. Which was unlikely to turn out well for any of us. More lightbulbs.
I pointed out to him that being safe is important, of course, but it’s not the only issue for him to concern himself with. He needed to be aware of how he appeared to people who may not even know him. You can’t expect people to see someone engaged in behavior which has every appearance of being dangerous, aggressive and violent and not react as if that person was dangerous, aggressive and violent. In fact, it would be irresponsible for someone who witnessed an adolescent kid swinging a baseball bat at a 6 year old to assume the best about the situation or wait to evaluate what’s going on before responding. It was his responsibility, I explained, not just to be safe, but also not to engage in behaviors which will cause alarm and panic in people who witness them.
Obviously this issue hadn’t been on his radar, but as I explained it to him, he caught on because even a tweenager can understand this pretty simple basic idea. Don’t create the impression that you are dangerous or people will respond to you as if you are dangerous and when they do, it will be your error, not theirs.
Unfortunately, it seems that many Trump supporters are no more aware of this concept than my son was prior to our conversation. They believe that the onus is on Trump’s critics to give him a chance and view those of us who are responding to Trump as if he is dangerous as paranoid and overreacting. They think it’s ridiculous that we won’t just wait and see what happens before jumping to the conclusion that Trump is dangerous. They are certain that Trump isn’t dangerous so, like my son who knew that he wasn’t actually going to hit my daughter or her bike with a baseball bat, it seems not to have occurred to them that this isn’t the only thing that matters about the situation.
There’s a reason the bible says to avoid the appearances of all kinds of evil. People aren’t required to wait for definitive proof to respond to the appearance of evil. If you aren’t dangerous and evil, it shouldn’t be that hard to take some responsibility for not creating the impression that you are dangerous and evil. Unfortunately, Trump seems to be going out of his way to create the appearance of all kinds of evil while his supporters act incredulous that anyone would think the man is actually dangerous.
But of course, in the real world, if you’re not racist, you don’t choose the leader of a flagrantly racist white nationalist movement to be your closest adviser and you don’t appoint a man known for his racism and opposition to civil rights to run the department charged with enforcing civil rights. If you’re not a tyrant in the making, you don’t continually threaten to sue and shut down the press when their reporting doesn’t please you. If you’re not a wealthy leach looking to enrich himself, you don’t refuse to release your tax records or take appropriate measures to eliminate conflicts of interest. If you are ethical, you don’t refuse to cooperate with the ethics oversight or threaten the person in charge of ethics oversight with investigation if he criticizes you. If you’re not a conman you don’t deny saying things you literally just said and lie continually.
I could go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on, but I think you get the point. Even if Trump really and truly is a good guy who wants to do right by the country, the fact remains that at every step of the way, Trump has been behaving exactly the way a dangerous, racist, unethical, despot rising to power behaves. It is not the responsibility of the public to withhold judgment when they witness something which appears dangerous. It is the responsibility of Trump to avoid creating the impression that he is dangerous. And it is both wrong and ridiculous for Trump supporters to continue to insist otherwise. Just because they are fools doesn’t mean the rest of us are obliged to follow suit.