Sometimes, even when I suspect that he knows it will hurt him, President Barack Obama does not follow the script. The evening of the day when terrorists struck in Belgium, the president and his family attended a Major League Baseball exhibition game in Cuba. Why didn’t he rush back to Washington, D.C., or to Belgium to show solidarity with our European allies? “The whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people’s ordinary lives,” he told ESPN during the game.
Agree or disagree with the choice—and Republican critics didn’t hesitate to strongly disapprove—Obama showed the calm that has characterized his presidency but that may be out of step with Americans’ fear of terrorism reaching our shores again. (At least, that what’s GOP presidential candidates and their supporters are hoping.)
When Obama was running for president in 2008, however, calm was one of the few emotions allowed in his public persona. If he had introduced himself in red-faced, hair-on-fire mode (think the current Republican front-runner), his campaign would have ended before it began. After President George W. Bush and a war that America had grown tired of, Obama’s mood fit the country’s.
But just as important was the fact that the man who wanted to be elected the country’s first African-American president already saw how he and his family, without evidence to back it up, were being tagged with the go-to adjective of “angry.”
Much has been said and written about “respectability politics,” and it has played out—most prominently for me—in the images of well-dressed, well-behaved civil rights demonstrators being called uncivilized by screaming, violent men, women and children. The contradiction was as plain as could be, but it hardly changed the minds of true believers in the way things—socially, culturally, politically—had always been and should remain.
Civility is an expectation for some Americans; violently acting out is not an option, at least not one that will be tolerated.
Imagine, for example, if President Obama said that his supporters might “riot” if the Senate refused to consider his choice for a Supreme Court vacancy that he is permitted, according to the Constitution, to fill. The howls would certainly include calls for impeachment, since those calls have come in response to actions of far less consequence.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, muses that he could shoot someone in the middle of the street without a drop in poll numbers or that his supporters could “riot” if he arrives at the Republican convention in Cleveland ahead in delegates, though short of the amount required, and is denied. And though his remarks are condemned by the Republican establishment, the pushback is markedly brief and notably halfhearted. The moment then passes until the next outrageous statement.
When it comes to Trump supporters vs. protesters, it has become a reliable script, a routine for viewers used to reality-show shenanigans. The free-for-all atmosphere—from Fayetteville, N.C., to Tucson, Ariz.—has become less shocking than the brief time it takes every confrontation to drop out of the news. Trump may be asked about the reported bullying behavior of his campaign manager, but no more than a few times until he can segue to talking about a U.S. ban on Muslims entering the country.
As in the past, there are contradictions. Donald Trump, who, every chance he gets, praises law enforcement, flatly denies that he is involved in or responsible for any violence at his rallies, even as he is on tape talking about punching people. He comes close to justifying uncivil action when he calls it passion and love for the country—somehow validating the un-American view that those who disagree aren’t as sincere and passionate in their own affection for this land. His words are an endorsement of different rules for different people.
He is backed up by tough talk from his coterie of politicians and pundits trying to remain relevant, from Sarah Palin to Chris Christie. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was front and center in condemning Beyoncé for a Super Bowl halftime show where no one was hurt, has not said much about the scenes and signs of those backing Trump.
Giuliani has now come out to bash Obama for not cutting short his diplomatic trip to Cuba to plan an attack on the Islamic State, or ISIS. Of course, the man who will never get anywhere close to living at the White House did not acknowledge that the president and his staff might have a plan; nor did he offer one of his own, except destruction of the terrorist group. That might also be enough for the man Giuliani must be jealous of, Donald Trump, to win in 2016.
To the list of privileges for those, like Trump, who have family money, endless connections and degrees from the finest schools, add the privilege of never being particularly thoughtful, of never having to dial it down and of being as angry as you want to be. Just make sure you are judged to be a “real” American, and on the right.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.