MADISON — President Barack Obama’s reaction to Donald Trump’s election could have gone something like this:
“My fellow Americans, we have made a grave mistake. That enough of us voted to elect a darling of white nationalists and an admitted sexual abuser, among other things, is a low point for American democracy.
“Nevertheless, as an American committed to a government of laws, I will do everything in my power to ensure President-elect Trump’s smooth transition into the White House. As a Christian who believes God can change the human heart, I will remain hopeful that Mr. Trump’s presidency can be a force for good.”
That Obama’s response to Trump has been significantly less judgmental and significantly more conciliatory is just one more reason to fear a spike in hate speech of the kind allegedly directed at a local multiracial family last week.
A handwritten letter left at a Fitchburg home touts Trump’s victory, uses the N-word and calls the family “race traitors.” It’s one of hundreds of racially charged incidents — some verified, some debunked — reported since Trump’s election.
Their implication is clear: Trump ran a divisive, and arguably sexist and racist campaign and won, so now it’s OK for us regular folk to be divisive, sexist and racist.
Usually, I wouldn’t take that implication or the Fitchburg letter all that seriously. Hate speech is horrible and frightening for victims, but there have always been racist morons with bad handwriting — no matter who the president is. They aren’t deserving of the public platform our outrage provides them.
People also have the free will to reject their leaders’ bad examples. Bill Clinton engaging in sexual activity with an intern in the Oval Office doesn’t give license to other married men to carry on extramarital affairs. Nor did Trump’s public ridiculing of a disabled reporter mean everyone’s going to start feeling comfortable making fun of the disabled.
And yet “there are numerous studies suggesting that the behavior of leaders influences other people,” said Markus Brauer, a UW-Madison psychology professor who studies behavior modification. “ ‘Prescriptive norms’ tell people what is the right thing to do. And there are many studies suggesting that people’s perceptions of prescriptive norms are heavily influenced by the leadership, in the positive and in the negative direction.”
If there’s any difference between the dangers to prescriptive norms posed by Clinton’s behavior and by Trump’s behavior, it might be that at least Clinton knew his behavior was wrong enough to lie about and, when caught, apologize for it.
By contrast, Trump’s response to being caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women was to apologize while simultaneously dismissing it as “locker room talk.” Asked recently if he regretted anything he’d said in the campaign — calling immigrants “rapists,” for example, or criticizing women as too unattractive to have sex with — he said: “No. I won.”
It’s disappointing enough that all the moral reservations Republicans such as U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Gov. Scott Walker had about Trump before the election vanished after he won the election. Worse is that the election results have convinced a squeaky clean politician like Obama to gloss over Trump’s awfulness.
Whether they know it or not, they’re going about the task of defining deviancy down — especially when the connections between Trump’s rhetoric in the campaign and the current level of hate in the Madison area or anywhere else could be much more than incidental.
“Trump’s behavior was considered unacceptable by many people, including Trump voters,” Brauer said. “But now that he is elected, he has national legitimacy. Therefore, his behavior is legitimate as well.”
Rev. Franz Rigert didn’t think people were altering their sense of right and wrong to align with Trump’s. But the leader of the Wisconsin conference of the United Church of Christ (which is, full disclosure, my denomination) said Trump can be blamed for a “groundswell right now in those who are belligerent.”
“He may not be the origin of it in our culture,” he said of Trump’s trafficking in sexism and racism, but “he’s normalized it.”
Perhaps even in places as previously normal as the Madison area.