Don’t Blame Donald Trump for Donald Trump

Hingston: Politicians like Trump and Kathleen Kane and Chris Christie are our fault. Who besides a narcissist could stand running for office in the internet age?

Trump photo: Andrew Harnik/AP. Kane: Matt Rourke/AP. Christie: still from NJTV livestream; used under a Creative Commons license

Trump photo: Andrew Harnik/AP. Kane: Matt Rourke/AP. Christie: still from NJTV livestream; used under a Creative Commons license

My boss asked me the other day why I was writing fewer opinion pieces online than I used to. I told him the truth: that I was tired of getting dragged through commenter hell whenever I did. He thought about that for a minute, then nodded: “I can see that.”

Back when the Internet was a baby, I was writing books for a living. When one came out and was posted on Amazon, there would commence a flood of “reviews”:

An ugly duck story that fails to enthrall or convince.

Do yourself a favor and leave this book on the shelf.

Not too bad but a little tedious.

Don’t waste your time or money. This one’s a stinker.

Oh, sometimes people said really nice things about the books. It didn’t matter. It was the negative reviews that stuck with me — haunted me, really. I stopped writing books and started writing magazine stories. And then the magazine world caught up and began posting them online. Here came the commenters:

This could have been written by a text generator.

You’re an ass.

Well, that was a healthy load of bollocks sprinkled with bullshit.

Sigh. I know, I know; we’re all entitled to our opinions. And I can be an ass; who can’t? But to an extent that’s probably not particularly healthy, my life is my work. So it’s really hard not to take this all personally.

Which made me think about something I read in an article about former Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane being sent to prison. It was what the judge, Wendy Demchick-Alloy, said about Kane as she pronounced a sentence of 10 to 23 months in county jail: “This case is about ego, ego of a politician consumed by her image since day one.” And that, in turn, reminded me of something I’d just read in the Atlantic about Chris Christie, and the change in our perceptions of him as governor of New Jersey:

Christie’s second term is proving to be quite different from his first one: that blustery charm is nowhere to be seen, and the public has instead been left with stories of brutish cruelty, of power run amok. …

And then, of course, there’s Donald Trump, and what Susan Matthews had to say about him in Slate:

Can we blame the candidate’s apparent insanity on an actual psychological condition? Are we watching the manifestation of a severe case of narcissistic personality disorder?

To which I have to say: Hell, yeah. Of course we are — just as we did with Kane (who’s a Democrat, by the way; narcissism knows no political party) and Christie, and Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was just charged with criminal contempt for refusing to end his illegal “immigration patrols.” And Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. And Rudy Giuliani. And oh, God, Ted Cruz. And yeah, much as I like the guy, probably Barack Obama. Because — think about it. Who but a raving narcissist could put up with the slings and arrows and nuclear bombs that go off nonstop during what passes these days for a “political campaign”?

I’m sure Hillary Clinton isn’t a faithful consumer of Fox News, but she must see the photos of Trump followers wearing T-shirts that proclaim her the b-word and c-word, right? It’s got to get you down. I don’t actually think Hillary’s a raging psychopath; you can tell that the business of campaigning — not to mention standing next to blowhard Trump at podiums while he sidemouth-slurs her as a nasty woman — often frustrates and depresses her. As it should, dammit. What about the emails? The speeches? BENGHAZI?!? What about her philandering husband and the way she stood by him? You’re an ass. This one’s a stinker. On and on and on.

Back in August, Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times analyzed the relative truthfulness of both candidates for president. His conclusion? “Clinton is about average for a politician in dissembling; Trump is a world champion who is pathological in his dishonesty.” Doesn’t matter. To most of America, it’s pretty much a wash. And you could rightly argue that many of Hillary’s worst moments have been Kathleen Kane-esque — that she, too, is “consumed with her image,” foundering in a netherworld of obsessive, paranoid control.

I don’t know how we fix this situation. Appeals to our better natures don’t seem to be working, though we all recognize civility when we see it — and long for it, for some sense of decency and grace. But so long as these are the rules we let the system be run by, so long as we refuse to self-censor and instead let our id-flags fly on the Internet full-blown, this is what we end up with: psychopaths and narcissists and control freaks who can withstand the barrages. My dictionary has a usage note on the word “civil,” by the way; it “often suggests little more than the avoidance of overt rudeness.” That doesn’t seem too much to ask for. Anymore, apparently, it is.