Trump Rallies are Tutorials in Hate, Vulgarity, and Disrespect
Children are absorbing terrifying lessons that will haunt us for generations.
“MOM, I DON’T THINK YOU SHOULD SEE THIS. You should leave the room.”
That was my younger son, age 7 or 8, purportedly trying to “protect” me years ago from a risqué music video on MTV.
We were relatively permissive parents. The boys watched MTV and The Simpsons from an early age—so many episodes of the latter so many times each that even now, in their thirties, both of them can spout the perfect bit of dialogue to fit any occasion, no matter how surreal. I see now they were right—that show was hilariously and cuttingly on the nose about everything.
I thought of all this while reading a Washington Post account of a Donald Trump rally in Iowa. I thought I knew what these rallies were like: I watched one start to finish back in 2016 and since then I’ve read many verbatim transcripts of Trump rallies and speeches. And I thought I knew Iowa and its unique political culture: I spent much of the 1990s and 2000s covering its liberal peaceniks, conservative Christians, caucuses and straw polls. I figured that, like many journalists and Americans in general, I was shockproof after eight years of Trump, though I’ve tried hard to avoid becoming numb or bored or exhausted.
Hannah Knowles has proved I am not shockproof. Her Post story about Trump’s rally in Fort Dodge on Saturday is, in fact, a continuing series of new shocks. That’s because her focus is not only on Trump but on the people who came to see him, and their children. Brace yourself:
Children wandered around in shirts and hats with the letters “FJB,” an abbreviation for an obscene jab at President Biden that other merchandise spelled out: “Fuck Biden.” . . .
One of Trump’s introductory speakers from the Iowa state legislature declared anyone who kneels for the national anthem is a “disrespectful little shit,” quickly drawing a roaring response. And outside the packed venue, vulgar slogans about Biden and Vice President Harris were splashed across T-shirts: “Biden Loves Minors.” “Joe and the Ho Gotta Go!” One referred to Biden and Harris performing sexual acts.
Some t-shirts for sale showed “images of Trump giving a middle finger.” One supporter Knowles quoted by name, Lori Carpenter, said Biden has to go “and the ho shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” The “ho” was Harris, Knowles said the woman clarified “before offering another nickname for Harris that was even more vulgar.”
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Others made excuses for Trump. “He’s admitted that he’s no holy man. And neither is anybody else,” Matthew Stringer told Knowles. Marsha Crouthamel said Trump needed to “excite” people and she didn’t care because “his policies are strong.” Carpenter, who called Kamala Harris a “ho,” called herself a Christian who could “look past” Trump’s flaws.
The once and aspiring president was his tiresome shock-jock self. According to a transcript that says his often incoherent rant clocked in at a mere 1 hour, 15 minutes—it felt interminable—he called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “DeSanctus” six times, “DeSanctimonious” six times, and “son of a bitch” once, and in a likely embellished telling, said DeSantis had begged for Trump’s gubernatorial primary endorsement in 2018 with “tears in his eyes.”
Trump used the word “birdbrain” four times to describe his United Nations ambassador, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. He was even more juvenile in his attacks on Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Cal.), the lead prosecutor in Trump’s first impeachment trial. He called him “Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff” twice and compared his neck to a pencil three times. “How does he hold up that fat ugly face?” he asked as the crowd roared.
Last but not least, Trump unloaded on Joe Biden in a series of attacks that elevated projection to a high art. The four-times-indicted, twice-impeached ex-president described Biden as incompetent, the worst president ever, and—twenty times!—crooked or a crook. He also called him “a Manchurian candidate” owned by China, and had (as usual) high praise for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “He happens to be a very smart person,” Trump said of Xi. “These are very smart people, but they’re dealing with very stupid people, our leader. Our leader is a stupid person.”
THIS WAS ALL HAPPENING in a high school gym. I repeat, a high school gym. Where teenagers hang out. In a building where they are supposed to be learning how to be good citizens and constructive members of society. Instead, we have this: Trump said he used to hold back on Biden out of respect for the presidency, “but now you can say it.”
That’s because of him. Trump has, for his followers, made it okay to say anything, whether it’s praising Nazis and dictators or attacking U.S. troops and military heroes. He’s also made it okay to do anything, including to beat up police defending the U.S. Capitol, smash windows to get in, smear feces on the Capitol walls, and go after elected officials in the Senate chamber—forcing people to cower on the floor or flee for their lives.
Most of us already know we’re in trouble, that Trump is the worst role model in the history of American politics. He’s pushed the boundaries so far that I look back on past political analyses I myself have written and don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Howard Dean, a medical doctor and 12-year governor of Vermont, has a bad temper? Calls opponents “boneheads”? Comes across as angry and edgy? Lacks the “tact” needed for international diplomacy?
Maybe because of numbness and exhaustion among the reporters who have been covering Trump, local stories about his rally were deadpan. One summarized Trump’s attacks as “digs.” Page 1 of Monday’s Washington Post print edition highlighted a feature from Door County, Wisconsin, headlined “In this bellwether, sick of politics.” The lead anecdote was about a woman who didn’t trust the government or the news and didn’t know whom to trust. So she consulted a psychic.
Yes, really. That was the lead photo, her with the psychic. And the Knowles story, as important as it was, showed up on page 3 under the headline, “Trump’s backers are emulating his crassness and cruelty.” Accurate, but no headline alone could convey the obscenities and level of contempt on graphic display in Knowles’s piece. Or the participation of the children.
My own take in 2016 was hypothetical but frightening: A nation of Trumps would be a nation of bullies. It’s actually turned out much worse. Our reality now is the Trump-inspired violence of January 6th and ongoing threats and violence against elected officials in both parties any time they demonstrate independence from Trump and his hardcore MAGA movement.
On Saturday in Fort Dodge, Trump called America “Joe Biden’s banana republic” and said he would “bring it back from hell because right now we’re in hell.” This from a loser who tried to stay in power after his defeat, incited a failed coup toward that end, and is now facing two criminal indictments over his plot. This from a man deemed by the Economist to pose “the biggest danger to the world in 2024.”
PRESIDENTS ARE NOT PERFECT, as we all know, but my sons never had brutally aggressive nastiness in their faces every day on TV, parents who called a vice president a whore, or parents who excused a president’s transgressions. When they were young, we were dealing with Madonna dancing provocatively in her pointy cone bras, the subversiveness of Bart Simpson, and, yes, the lurid, drawn-out Bill Clinton sex scandal. That last once sent my then-9-year-old—the same child who had tried to banish me from the room because of an MTV video—scurrying out of the kitchen because, he said, “I shouldn’t be hearing this.” His parents were not angrily attacking an unfair system rigged against Clinton. We were outraged at him, and I fervently wished he’d resign.
Trump presents a massive challenge today to parents across the ideological spectrum who believe in old-fashioned virtues like respect and civility. Other parents, those who admire Trump, are enthusiastically introducing their kids to the cruel and dangerous MAGA culture, and they appear blind to the harm Trump is doing—both to their families and to the nation.
What am I thankful for this Thanksgiving week? I’m thankful that I am no longer a parent of small children, or teenagers, or any child under 25. And hopeful that the courts and the next election will put a stop to the worst of it before there’s a new generation conditioned to see horrific behavior, from parents to political leaders, as simply the way things are.