Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Donald Trump, disabilities, and matters of the heart

In November 2015, Donald Trump was shown on a video mocking a disabled reporter, a now infamous event that he can’t seem to shake, despite his claim that he could not remember ever meeting the reporter and that he did not know that he had a disability.

The award-winning New York Times reporter who Trump mocked was Serge Kovaleski. He has a physical disability called arthrogryposis, a condition causing joint contracture in his right arm and hand. Trump's attempt at humor mimicked Kovaleski’s condition.

According to a New York Times article, “Donald Trump Says His Mocking of New York Times Reporter Was Misread” by Maggie Haberman, 11/26/15:

“Mr. Trump, who said he did not recall having met the reporter, Serge F. Kovaleski, issued the statement over Twitter one day after news media reports that he had imitated the reporter during a rally in South Carolina. Mr. Trump described Mr. Kovaleski as trying to back away from a story he wrote in September 2001 while he was working for The Washington Post. The candidate used the article to try to justify his widely debunked claims that there were 'thousands and thousands' of people 'cheering' the fall of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks." 

No one has been able to validate the claim by Donald Trump that thousands of people cheered at the fall of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks. According to the New York Times account,

“After reports that the authorities had found the accounts unfounded, Mr. Trump seized on the 2001 article by Mr. Kovaleski as proof of his claim. That story contained a sentence saying that the authorities in the days after the terrorist strikes had detained and questioned 'a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks' on rooftops with tailgate-style parties. The story never referred to 'thousands,' and it did not say that the allegations had been substantiated. Mr. Kovaleski, in interviews since Mr. Trump made his claim, has said his reporting did not bear out the 'thousands' number, or even 'hundreds.'”

Even, a right wing website for news and commentary and a fervent supporter of Mr. Trump, agrees in this post from 12/1/15:

“There is nothing yet that validates Donald Trump’s claim that on that terrible September morning 'thousands and thousands' of American Muslims cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center. At worst, though, the Republican frontrunner is guilty of exaggerating….”

Had Trump ever met the reporter who has an obvious physical disability? According to the the 11/16/15 New York Times article:

“…Mr. Kovaleski said that he met with Mr. Trump repeatedly when he was a reporter for The Daily News covering the developer’s business career in the late 1980s, before joining The Post. 'Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,' Mr. Kovaleski said. 'I’ve interviewed him in his office,' he added. 'I’ve talked to him at press conferences. All in all, I would say around a dozen times, I’ve interacted with him as a reporter while I was at The Daily News.'"

How are we to interpret this episode involving the ridicule of a disabled reporter by mimicking his disability? The incident might have been disposed of with an apology and a plausible excuse from the Trump team. But the infamous event came up again and again in the campaign leading up to the 2016 election and most recently in a speech by Meryl Streep at the 2017 Golden Globe awards. According to the article from the Washington Post,

“…it's not exactly a controversial viewpoint to believe that Trump was in the wrong on this one. In fact, as of August, it was the one thing he had done that bothered people most, according to a Bloomberg poll. Fully 62 percent said they were bothered “a lot” by it, and an additional 21 percent said they were bothered “a little.” Just 15 percent said it didn't bother them at all.”

Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway, in a confrontation with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, said in defense of Trump:

“'Why don't you believe him? Why is everything taken at face value?' Conway asked CNN's Chris Cuomo while talking about Meryl Streep's criticism of Trump at Sunday's Golden Globes.

"She continued: 'You can't give him the benefit of the doubt on this, and he's telling you what was in his heart? You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.'"

Excuse me, but what comes out of a person’s mouth is the only way most of us have to determine what another person is thinking, much less what is in another’s heart.

When an incident like this is poorly explained and is not well understood, the finger pointing and defensiveness sows confusion and distrust and makes us doubt everything we hear or see from public officials and the media. Maybe that’s the point of Trump’s defenders holding fast to a strategy to never admit wrong and never apologize. If he gets something wrong, he can throw doubt on everyone and everything else with his confusing excuses and contradictory statements.

The rest of us live in an imperfect world of imperfect people and government institutions and we can’t afford to engage in strategies that avoid reality and make our lives more confusing. 
For families of people with disabilities, mocking and ridicule of a man and his disability is very much a matter of the heart. Let’s hope that the new administration learns something from this incident - that it’s OK to say you're sorry. In the meantime, judge the Trump team by its actions and don’t be afraid to speak up.

See also, "Not 'She Said, He Said.' Mockery, Plain and Simple." by Liz Spayd, 1/10/17.

No comments: