Presidential Tone Deafness, Civility and Hope
July 29, 2019
July 29, 2019
It’s been almost two weeks since the President Trump rally in North Carolina where we witnessed the birth of the “Send her back” chant. While President Trump was disparaging Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, the chant, “Send her back,” started up. Incredulously, the President paused, turned toward the direction of the chant, and seemed pleased as it spread across the stadium. The chant, and the President’s willingness to let it crescendo, lowered yet again, the presidential bar for civility.
Politics aside, here is what I think sickened me most. In the video coverage of the speech, you can see children and older adolescents in the crowd. What was difficult to stomach was watching some of them mimic the words “send her back” and then get full-throated, joining the rest of the audience in the chant. Cheers and smiles all around.
Like many of you, I have been in crowds where the enthusiasm of the moment takes hold. It can be an exhilarating and exciting feeling. It happens at sporting events, concerts, and yes, political rallies. The group psychology effect is real, and I hold no ill will towards the young people at this particular rally who got caught up in it.
But for their parents or significant adults in their lives who brought them to the rally, I am concerned. What is the message we are giving to our children when we encourage them to join in a racist chant that they most likely do not understand? What message is being imprinted on these young minds as they participate in the mindless chanting of “Send her back?” These young people likely have no understanding of the meaning of what they are saying. They see their parents do it. They see their President do it. It must be the thing to do, right?
When they go back to school, how do they explain it to their friends? “Oh, man, it was great; we all started yelling, ‘Send her back.’ It was awesome, so loud! Yea, we gotta make America great again.” Sadly, there is likely little to no understanding of the impact of what they are saying.
Disagreements about policy direction are at the cornerstone of American Democracy, and healthy discourse is vital to our democratic growth. Unfortunately, racist rants as a way to minimize the opposition have been walking alongside the growth of our democracy since its infancy. We owe it to our children to model a different message. Our President owes it to us to model tolerance in the face of disagreement. Unfortunately, to this point, he has not done so.
A More Civil Presidential Approach
The memorial service for John McCain provides a great example of how two presidents with fundamental policy disagreements were able to maintain respect and civility for each other. At the memorial service, both Presidents Barack Obama and George Bush spoke. Two presidents, miles apart in their political views, being asked posthumously by the deceased John McCain to speak at his funeral. Ironically, while alive, John McCain disagreed on a variety of issues with both President Obama and President Bush.
The comments made by Obama and Bush at the memorial service were soothing to our weary souls in a time of grief and mourning. Two presidents who were modeling what I want my children to take away from the term “president.” The example set by these two presidents is what we should all want to model for our children. We need to model the art of never forgetting the importance of civility and respect when involved in a heated debate.
That is what I want, but not what I, or we, have. As I finish writing this essay, President Trump has gone on the offensive against Representative Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore. In a series of tweets, our President called Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess,” and a place where “no human being would want to live.”
Is that the messaging of respect and civility we want from our President? I think not.
Is that the messaging we want to give to our children? I think not.
It doesn’t look like the President’s caustic approach to civil discourse is going to change anytime soon. All appearances are that it is going to ratchet up even more. Now, more than ever, it is incumbent for us to talk to our children about the importance of civility and celebrating the diversity among us. That is what makes us strong. That is what makes America great.
Seeking Strength Within
And speaking of staying strong, when I need a reminder of the strength, resilience, and humanity that exists in each of us, I watch Maya Angelou’s recitation of her stirring poem, “And Still I Rise.”
Take some time today to talk with the young people you hold most dear about the respectful and affirming spirit that is just itchin’ to express itself within us.
And then rise up!
My passion is helping to shape policy and practice in children’s mental health. For the past 40 years, my journey as a mental health advocate has traveled from volunteering at a suicide and crisis center, professional roles as a therapist in an outpatient clinic, in-home family therapist, state mental health official, Board Chair for a county mental health program, and national reviewer of children’s mental health systems reform efforts. As the founder of the Children’s Mental Health Network (2009), I lead the Network’s efforts to grow a national online forum for the exchange of ideas on how to continually improve children’s mental health research, policy and practice.