Exactly four weeks ago, I told FOX 29’s Bruce Gordon that if this year’s presidential election had taught us anything, it’s that words matter.
At the time, I was reacting to the unfortunate comments of Donald Trump Jr., who — during an interview with Chris Stigall on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT — invoked imagery that many in the Jewish community likened to an improper comparison to the Holocaust.
“Without the media, this wouldn’t even be a contest, but the media has built her up,” the son of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said the morning of Sept. 15, referring to his father’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. “They’ve let her slide on every indiscrepancy, on every lie, on every DNC game trying to get Bernie Sanders out of this thing. If Republicans were doing that, they’d be warming up the gas chamber right now.”
The younger Trump’s statement wasn’t the only off-putting verbiage this election cycle. His comments actually came just days after Clinton had labeled large swaths of her opponent’s base as a “basket of deplorables.”
Clinton later apologized, saying that she was referring to the racists and xenophobes who happen to back the Republican standard-bearer, not to the rank-and-file, mom-and-pop John Q. Publics who are backing the Trump campaign. And for his part, Trump Jr. explained the gas chamber remark as referring generally to the death penalty.
By the time Gordon and his cameraman arrived at the Jewish Community Services Building, where the Exponent is published, I had hoped that the final stretch of the race to the White House would have seen the two major party candidates finally climb out of the gutter.
Boy, was I wrong!
There are people far more influential than myself on the growing list of those condemning the vile statements Trump made about women that surfaced last Friday in an NBC recording originally made in 2005. So my own disgust, stemming from my identity as a father, a husband and a son, ultimately doesn’t matter much. I’m not going to recount exactly what was said — the Exponent is, after all, a family paper — except to point out that I’ve now sheltered my children from the news coverage of this election, whether in print, online, on the radio or on television, in a way I never had to before.
Trump, it should be noted, apologized for the comments, explaining them away in a campaign video and in Oct. 9th’s second presidential debate as “locker-room banter.” But we, as a nation, will ultimately do ourselves a great disservice if we let the matter rest there. We risk abrogating the values undergirding our society if we allow politicians of whatever stripe to say whatever they want under the pretense of either “telling it like it is” (Trump) or it being “not an ordinary time” (Clinton).
The problem I have with both of these candidates is that I wouldn’t want to associate with either of them. I wouldn’t want to associate with anyone who writes off vast segments of the electorate as inherently irredeemable because of their views, no matter how abhorrent. By the same token, I wouldn’t want to be in the locker room with someone for whom endorsing borderline sexual assault, even in jest, is commonplace. At their worst, such comments reveal severe moral failings of the person saying them; at their best, they reveal a severe lack of judgment.
I realize we’ve come a long way from the days of judging presidential candidates by the standard of which one we’d rather enjoy a beer with, but in addition to the very real concerns of domestic and international policy and military strategy, we must once more demand of our future leaders a demonstrable respect for the everyday men and women who form the fabric of this country. And that starts with policing the words they use.
This is why I applaud the undecided voter named Karl Becker who got the final question of the second debate: “Name one positive thing you respect about one another.” If we can finally force the candidates to find some common ground, however small, perhaps there’s some hope for all of us. Call me crazy, but something tells me that between now and Election Day, there will unfortunately be plenty more opportunities for us to be aghast at the quality of presidential hopefuls’ speech.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.