Mocking Trump

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Andrew Pulrang

Well, we wanted the Presidential candidates to say something about disability, and Donald Trump generously obliged us. Unfortunately, crude mocking of a news reporter’s disability isn’t really what we were looking for.

Or, maybe it is. Maybe we can still get something out of this … um … incident, in addition to disgust and cheap amusement.

Before I go on, I should probably state my personal opinion on two key points. First, I don’t like Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate. I didn’t like him before this incident and I don’t like him any better afterwards. So, I can’t claim total objectivity. Second, I am 80% sure that Trump was making fun of reporter Serge Kovaleski’s disability while talking about him at a rally last Tuesday. I think the odds are roughly 50% / 50% that Trump did it intentionally or that it was a spontaneous move.

I am at least a bit uncertain here because: A. I am not a mind reader, and B. I think it’s possible Trump got carried away in the moment and used a somewhat generic form of mockery, something like a universal pantomime for, “this is what a stupid, weak, pathetic person is like.” In fact, when I first saw the headline, I thought someone might be jumping to conclusions and over-interpreting something tasteless but not targeted. Then I watched the video. That mostly changed my mind. What Trump is doing there is much too specific to be just a vague sort of goofiness. I think Trump spiced up his attack on Kovaleski’s journalistic credibility by mocking his appearance. Assuming that’s more or less what happened, then, what does it mean?

First of all, we now know about another group of Americans Donald Trump is willing to insult when it suits him… disabled people. We are in good company of course, along with Hispanics, black people, Muslims, and women. And there may be more added to the list before next November. Any disabled people who still insist that disability issues have nothing to do with discrimination against other minorities should think again, because plenty of others already put us all in the same basket.

By actually counterattacking Kovaleski for daring to contradict him, Trump also reminds us that as disabled people, we are part of “PC culture” whether we like it or not. All we have to do is complain once, decide on one rough day that we’re not going to just laugh off another remark or gesture that makes us cringe, and we become one of the whiners and weaklings who can’t take a joke, who shamefully “use” our disabilities to “grandstand” and make billionaire presidential candidates look bad.

It’s worth pointing out here that Mr. Kovaleski has mainly confined his comments to the original issue … what did or didn’t happen in New Jersey right after 9/11, and whether or not he and Trump have ever been personally acquainted. It’s his employer, the New York Times, that originally went after Trump, and as far as I know, Mr. Kovaleski hasn’t mentioned his disability at all. That doesn’t matter, because the popular narrative is that disabled people who speak out in ways that make others uncomfortable are distasteful attention hogs.

Trump’s mockery has also been a fine lesson in ad hominem attack … a particularly weak, childish form of argument where you attack superficial aspects of the person instead of their position. Whether or not he meant it and whether or not it was harmful, Trump called attention to irrelevant aspects of Serge Kovaleski’s appearance to discredit him on something completely unrelated. He’s not only wrong about this thing here … but he moves and talks funny!

Ironically … or maybe appropriately … Trump later pointed out that he, himself, is often the target of similar attacks, based on his odd hairstyle. Making fun of Donald Trump’s hair isn’t quite as cruel or as resonant for an entire group of people as mocking a disability, but it’s just as weak an argument. Trump’s appearance and personal style are the least of his faults, and it does bother me when people focus on how he looks instead of on what he says and does.

There are other hopeful signs coming out of this. Trump usually leans way into his harshest statements. This time, he’s at least trying to slide out of it sideways. He eventually felt it necessary to go out of his way to praise disabled people in general, and affirm that it’s generally not okay to mock people for their disability. The story may not be over yet, and Trump hasn’t really backed down, but making fun of a disabled person … even just appearing to do so … may turn out to be a step too far, even for him.

Another interesting aspect of this story is the varied tone of the response. I can’t cite a thorough tally of news and social media coverage, but from the start, I got the impression that while plenty of disabled people are upset about Trump’s mockery, the most intense anger comes from nondisabled people. It’s almost as if disabled people themselves are unsurprised and, therefore, less impressed, because we have all experienced similar taunting.. That’s one of the reasons why I tend to believe Trump did what people think he did. I’ve had disabilities all my life … arthrogryposis in fact, though the type doesn’t matter … and I’ve seen this kind of thing before, from cartoon villains, but also from smart, kind people who should definitely know better. The main difference with Trump is that candidates for President are usually more polite and restrained about it.

What frustrates me more is that personal offense and flashy individual outrage about disability always seem to generate more attention than dry, complex, but supremely important disability policy issues. I don’t mean to minimize the potential offensiveness of Trump’s actions at the podium, or his reactions afterwards. It’s just that I am much more interested in what Trump, and the other candidates of any party, want to actually do about our low employment rates, institutionalization, discrimination, lack of physical access, and still outdated approaches to education of disabled kids. But those are boring policy wonk topics requiring, you know, knowledge, empathy, and an attention span.

Then on Saturday, Trump opened a door for real discussion, though in this case I don’t think he meant to do so. After reassuring the crowd in Florida that he would never really taunt disabled people, he said that he’s spent more money than anyone else on behalf of disabled people. By which he mainly means paying for all of his company buildings to be accessible. Now there’s a real-life, substantive disability policy issue … the importance of accessibility and what role the government should take in improving it. The next Republican debate is on December 15. Maybe an enterprising panelist will ask Trump and the other candidates about their views on the Americans with Disabilities Act and accessibility compliance. A discussion like that would be equally helpful at the next Democratic debate, on December 19, too.

How about using this whole Thanksgiving Weekend brouhaha to kick off an even broader discussion of accessibility, the ADA, and … since Serge Kovaleski in many ways fits the ideal of a productive, gainfully employed disabled person … how they would help more disabled people reach their employment goals?

I am completely serious. A debate moderator could easily use the Trump mockery incident to ask such a question. I have one piece of advice though. Require the candidates to leave out any defenses, apologies, or condemnations about the incident itself, and insist that they for once address real questions about disability, and not this hot but empty trivia.

It might make the whole sorry spectacle worthwhile.

Andrew Pulrang maintains the Disability Thinking blog, and worked in Independent Living for over 23 years at the North Country Center for Independence in Plattsburgh, New York.

Video of Trump: