“I know you are, but what am I?”
Maybe you remember that one from the schoolyard. It was one of those unanswerable taunts — “I’m rubber, you’re glue” was another — widely favored by smart-alecky kids, a bit of verbal judo that took an attacker’s thrust and turned it back against her.
“I know you are, but what am I?”
Most of us outgrew the riposte about the same time we outgrew passing notes in class. Apparently, Donald Trump never did. Far from leaving it behind, he has honed it into a potent political tool perfect for this era of post-factual lassitude and cognitive dissonance. As Campaign 2016 grinds toward a reckoning, we are seeing that tool employed with breathtaking shamelessness.
It works like this: Whatever Trump is called or accused of, he turns it back on the accuser. Did you ever see that scene in “The Equalizer” where a bad guy points a gun at Denzel Washington and, faster than the eye can follow, Denzel snatches the gun and points it back at him? It’s something like that, except with words.
So the man who claims that he’s always opposed the Iraq War (even though he didn’t), the man who said the election is rigged, (even though it isn’t), the man who told us Barack Obama founded ISIS (even though — duh! — he didn’t), the man whose PolitiFact scorecard rules more than 80 percent of his rated statements as half-truths and untruths … that man complains that Hillary Clinton is “a world-class liar.”
And the man whose idea of releasing medical information is a brief note from his doctor so loopy, imprecise and filled with wild, extravagant claims (Trump “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”) that one doctor dubs it “medically illiterate” … that man tells us it’s the mysteries of Hillary Clinton’s health we ought to be concerned about.
And the man who said a judge was unfit to judge because he is of Mexican heritage, the man who wants a ban on Muslim immigration, the man who retweets racists and anti-Semites, the man who is openly beloved by white supremacists to the point that former Klansman David Duke seems about ready to kiss him on the lips … that man condemns Hillary Clinton as “a bigot.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but having Donald Trump lecture you about bigotry, transparency or truth is rather like having Kanye West tell you to stop behaving like an idiot.
In psychology, they have this phenomenon called projection. The Cambridge Dictionary of Psychology defines it as a “primitive defense mechanism” that involves “the unconscious warding off of negative experiences or emotions by denying an experience, perceiving it in another person and then seeing that negative experience as being directed back at the projector.”
Which sounds like what we’re seeing here, except there is nothing “unconscious” about it.
No, this is calculated, born of a conviction that there really is a sucker born every minute — and that an alarming proportion of them vote in American elections. So the challenge here is simple: What will we say in response? How will we answer this insult to intelligence?
Or are we too sick of it all to care? One has a sense of an electorate pummeled into emotional submission. Which is hardly surprising. It’s been a long, dispiriting campaign largely bereft of ideas, proposals and uplift. But it is important to remember that November will be a moment of truth in more ways than one. Indeed, November will answer a critical question.
You say Trump is an ignorant narcissist unfit for the White House? Yes, we know he is.
But what are we?
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.