Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
American nursery rhyme
Unlike any other campaign in our history, the most newsworthy events in the 2016 presidential race have been words. Not articles about a candidate’s past actions, mind you, but commentary about the candidate’s comments. This is highly unusual, for past presidential campaigns have revolved around a candidate’s actions and their ability to lead based on those actions.
Consider George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Michael Dukakis. The Willie Horton ad was effective against Dukakis because of what he was alleged to have done in supporting Massachusetts’ weekend furlough program for dangerous criminals. Later, Dukakis’ campaign hit another low when images of him sitting in a tank apparently seemed so incongruous as to be unbelievable for him as a potential Commander-In-Chief. The rap against against George W. Bush wasn’t what he said, but what he did or didn’t do: he was definitely a lightweight on historical knowledge or even interest, and Al Gore highlighted his lack of experience at the federal level. On the other hand, a plus in his column was that he had worked successfully with Democrats while Governor of Texas.
Ronald Reagan, Gary Hart, and even Bill Clinton all ran, and were opposed on, their actions – what they’d done as Governors or Senator – and Hart was eventually felled by a photo of a model sitting on his lap (implying adulterous actions). Virtually none of the U.S. presidential campaigns in modern history have had their success rise or fall on words only.
That’s what makes this campaign so different. From the moment Donald J. Trump stepped onto the national political stage, its his words that have been the topic of discussion, not his actions. Whatever you think of his business success, he has had a remarkable run as a billionaire real-estate developer in New York City, and as such, has more of a grasp of the ins and outs of economics, finance, negotiation, competition, relationships, and partnerships than any busload of senators or congressmen. His high profile (New York City billionaire) and success have also given him regular access to some of the most powerful people in the world, in both politics and business.
But those who dissect the political campaigns will find that the vast majority of news centered on what Trump said, not on what he did. The stories have ranged from “did you hear what he said about so-and-so?” gossip to the “he said he was going to do this, and that upset a lot of people” type, but never was there ever a focus longer than a two-year-old’s attention span on the things he’s done that would merit our voting for him.
What this shift of focus has revealed about America is interesting. For it seems clear now that the old adage “actions, not words” has been turned on its head, so that it’s now what you say that counts, not what you do. Not only is that illogical, it’s disturbing, for we seem to have come full circle as a society whose driving force is not the actions we take to determine what’s right for America, or some concept of justice in action. Rather, it’s how politically correct we are: how we feel, what we say, and – when actions are absolutely necessary – not even the results of our action, but what our intentions were in carrying them out.
Volumes can be written about this decades-long shift into liberal authoritarianism, but the words of the nursery rhyme at the beginning of this post came to mind as I was thinking about the media focus on Trump’s latest crazy statements. This rhyme, like others, was an attempt to teach children something – here, to be strong in the face of “mere words:” that little Susie telling Johnny that he was a jerk didn’t mean that Johnny was actually a jerk, and Johnny could leave the hurtful exchange knowing that, despite the sting those words planted on his psyche, they were momentary and he was really none the worse for wear (no broken bones). “Hear the words, acknowledge their utterance, then forget about it, because you are more than the sum of the words others use to describe you,” seemed to be the operative principle.
This rhyme was still valid when I was a kid in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But in the late ‘70s and early ’80s, an eerie change crept in. The “self-esteem” building, the “games with no winner,” the changes in vocabulary, and the extreme hypersensitivity with which we were told – not encouraged, told – to conduct our social exchanges took root and have grown like ragweed since then. And now, with a U.S. Presidency hinging on a grade-school hairpulling contest between a socialist bureaucrat and a conservative businessman, this political correctness has reached full flower.
A cursory Internet search on the rhyme “Sticks And Stones” will yield thousands of quotes like this: “Perhaps parents will want to learn this poem instead of reciting the old one!…Sticks and stones break only skin, While words are ghosts that haunt me. Slant and curved the words-swords fall, To pierce and stick inside me, bats and bricks may ache through bones, But words can mortify me…”. And modern psychology has been covering itself with glory for decades with quotes like this, under a title “Verbal Abuse:” “While some abusers yell, threaten, ridicule, or humiliate, others wound with words in less obvious ways: “correcting” your mistakes, disparaging your motives, even “suggesting” a course of action “for your own good.” [emphasis mine]. Sadly, we’re not even shocked anymore at the assertion that one person correcting another “for their own good” is considered abuse.
(see Part 2 of 2 for the conclusion)