BY: M. TOMOSKI
You never really know how big a state can be until you try to make your way from one corner of the map to the other, trapped in the midday traffic, to watch a dying presidential campaign. Jeb Bush just wasn’t worth it and Center, South Carolina was too far to go to see an awkward middle-aged man stand in front of a small crowd at a high school and beg to be released from the clutches of a bully. In one of the few States in the Union where the name Bush could be expected to win votes, Jeb’s major loss proved that it was Trump — not his family’s reputation — who threw a huge, obnoxious wrench into the gears.
As I stood on the resort-infested shores of Myrtle Beach a plane flew up and down the coast dragging a banner within sight of the Trump event at the local sports centre. I tried to make out the words which were meant to send a message to the man who was one night away from a clear victory only 45 minutes after the polls had closed; leaving Cruz and Rubio to once again fight for second place as if it was what they wanted all along.
When the plane made the rounds again the letters clearly read: “VETS TO TRUMP STOP HATE SPEECH AGAINST MUSLIMS”
It wasn’t a radical message, though it was a little startling to see it written in the sky. The opposition had finally begun to fight on Trump’s level and the words came back to me later that night in North Charleston where thousands of South Carolinians gathered to see what could be the most morally dubious speech of the campaign.
If only for a few minutes, the Convention Center fell silent. Trump signs were cast aside and heads were bowed for the new feature of the show: a quiet prayer for victory…and then, suddenly the sound of music and the roar of the announcer’s voice: “Ladies and Gentlemen, DONALD TRUMP!”
Supporters stood to greet the golden Don and forgot their seats for the rest of the night. He emerged in his spectacular fashion launching into a speech that whipped and weaved through a range of issues from gun rights to education and drug abuse, taking time in between to remind everyone that he was self-funding his campaign.
At first glance it looks as though Trump has just the kind of charisma needed to captivate a crowd. The Donald doesn’t need the polls or a teleprompter to tell him what to say. But when you start to follow him from state to state like a crazed groupie you begin to realize that it’s the crowd that really has control of each event. Trump is just there to wing it when he hears applause and pray that no one asks for details. Like a bat trapped in a tight spot Donald uses the sound of his rallies to guide him through. He’s not a leader so much as a reflection of his followers and each event is a live poll — a living and organic experience. It’s the closest thing to raw democracy in action and it scares the life out of his opponents who continue to insist that the numbers will fall in their favour if they stick to their guns.
But his events embody exactly what democracy is: the popular opinion armed with power and vulnerable to a hive-mind mentality that truly reared its ugly head in North Charleston when Trump began to feed the applause that followed his mention of waterboarding.
“They think I’m going to say it’s a terrible thing,” Trump started.”Oh it’s so horrible, it’s so mean, it’s so terrible.”
“The question is: is it torture or not?” He said arriving at the conclusion that, “it’s so borderline – It’s like minimal, minimal, minimal torture.”
With this in mind he went on to mock Ted Cruz’s restraint on the issue and said, “I feel great about it,” fishing for a bigger rise out of the crowd. “I think we should go much, much, much, further than waterboarding.”
“Can you imagine?” He then spoke about ISIS, “that they’re actually worried about waterboarding as being a little bit cruel.”
“They must think we’re the dumbest, and the weakest, and the stupidest people on earth.”
“The sight of a room that large screaming enthusiastically in support of violence as they helped their children onto chairs for a better view is really quite a scare.”
It was enough to throw my mind back to Myrtle Beach where I watched the banner fly over the pier.
So when I had the chance to speak to Michael McPhearson, a veteran of the first Gulf War and Executive Director of Veterans For Peace, I had to ask how something like this could appeal to anyone.
“When people are afraid they look for security and a lot of people see that in Trump,” he said. “They feel like he can wrestle with all the different interests that are impacting the economy and impacting their lives in a negative way.”
Veterans For Peace has been organizing demonstrations at Trump rallies across the country because they believe that, “Alienating…[an entire]…community is not going to make us more secure,” McPherson says, “We need to help people figure out positive ways to address their fears.”
McPhearson and his fellow veterans believe that one of the best ways to fight back against bigotry and hate is to call it out when you see it.
“When you see it at the highest level of discourse that makes it look like it’s okay for people to say anything they want.”
Many have seen Trump as a champion against restrictions on free speech that come from a pressure to be politically correct. And McPhearson said he could understand the appeal.
“There is truth to people, many times, not being able to talk to each other in honest ways so that we can figure out how to move forward.”
“What Trump and others are doing – which is despicable – in some ways it’s good because, as Doctor King said, we need to let the tensions come to the surface,” McPhearson says. “It’s good because now we can deal with it out in the open.” But he insists that there is a point at which free speech can be used as a cover for bigotry.
And in North Charleston even Donald Trump admitted that the story he was about to tell, and the high point of his speech, might make a few people in the room uneasy.
“You know, I read a story,” he said, “it’s a terrible story, but I’ll tell you.”
The story was of an American general from the early 1900s named John J Pershing who was given the task of subduing Muslims who opposed America’s occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish American War.
“He took fifty people – he took fifty bullets and he dipped them in pig’s blood,” Donald said, hinting at how the crowd ought to know that Muslims hate pigs. “He had his men load his rifles and he lined up the fifty people and he shot forty-nine of those people.
“And the fiftieth person, he said, ‘you go back to your people and you tell them what happened’ and for twenty-five years there wasn’t a problem.”
It wasn’t clear whether Trump was advocating for the use of executions to terrorize American security threats or just telling a story he thought was interesting. And finding a historical account of the event is quite difficult. The number of Muslims executed range from six out of twelve to Trump’s 49 out of 50 and much of what was written on Pershing suggests that he was much more merciful than the story suggests. Then again, Trump did begin by saying that it wouldn’t be something you read in the history books and as applause filled the room Trump told the crowd that, “we better start using our heads or we’re not going to have a country.”
It’s difficult to know exactly what kind of country Trump has in mind when he claims that Americans ought to be disgusted at the, “medieval” practices that ISIS is promoting while, in the same breath, encouraging us all to take it one step further. But Trump wouldn’t be the first leader to suggest that America ought to abandon its morality in order to fight fire with fire. It’s the sort of thing that is allowed to slip through the cracks from time to time and is the reason we have waterboarding to begin with.
“As Veterans For Peace we realize that this type of rhetoric is used to take our country to war,” Michael McPhearson says. “You have to create an enemy for people to be scared of.
“It doesn’t have to be Trump. If those feelings are there and they appeal to people then someone else can use it.”
But what we do with the leaders who appeal to our worst emotions is ultimately up to us. Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has said repeatedly that he would support whoever the party chooses, while some are calling Trump’s candidacy the death of the Republican Party and others stare wide eyed and confused at how any of this could have been allowed to happen.
After decades of being forced to look out for the bigger, badder boogieman the party is seeing itself in the mirror for the first time since it allowed fear merchants to take the reins and run wild.
From Reagan’s Evil Empire to Bush’s Axis of Evil and the fearful reports of Fox News, the leadership has been allowed to play off of uncertainty among voters by offering bigoted and ill-informed opinions as simple solutions to complicated problems.
To claim that fear is not what the party has come to stand for, after watching thousands of people cheer for torture in South Carolina, is like saying that the swastika is an ancient and sacred Hindu symbol of good fortune or the hammer and cycle are a sign of solidarity. It may be true, but some terrible people have worked long and hard to make sure that that’s not what we see when we look at it.