Don’t be a Donald!

Fresno Bee, October 4, 20202

The president is obnoxious. And our democracy is in disarray. The debate this week demonstrated that Trump is a boor. But this is not news. For nearly five years, I have been writing about Trump’s incivility.

So what have we learned during these years? Well, I hope that by observing Trump we learn how not to behave. The president’s behavior can be used to teach lessons in critical thinking and character. I imagine posters that say, “Don’t be a Donald!”

This is a time-honored method of moral instruction. Cato, a Roman soldier and senator, said, “wise men profit more from fools than fools from wise men.” Moral development is stimulated by scrutinizing bad behavior.

The lessons are simple. Don’t badger other people. Keep your mouth shut and allow others to speak. Ad hominem arguments are empty and irrelevant. Blustery bullying is mean. Lies, deflections, and hyperbole indicate a mind without clarity or depth.

These are ancient lessons. The Bible warns against false and foolish speech. It praises wisdom and righteous words, as well as kindness, patience, and golden silence. It is better, we learn, to remain quiet than to blow like the wind. The Bible points out the moral failure of selfish and incompetent leaders.

The ancient Greeks offered similar lessons. The Greek tragedies are object lessons in failures of character. The Greeks teach us to avoid hasty and loud speech, to cherish wisdom, and to persuade rather than overpower. They teach us not to mock another’s misfortune, to be merciful in our strength, and to seek tranquility through self-mastery and introspection. One of the seven sages of ancient Greece, Chilon, put it simply, “Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger. Let no one see you in a hurry. Obey the laws. Be restful.”

These lessons are taught by observing bad rulers. Ahab and Oedipus were corrupt kings. They ignored moral restraint. Moral education uses ancient tragedy to teach us how not to behave.

But there is another side to the story. Even though the corrupt kings of the ancient world eventually fell, they still enjoyed the privilege of power. Here is a problem for parents and teachers today. The Trump method rejects restraint. But so far, this bad behavior has worked. If you act like Trump, you could become a billionaire and win the presidency.

Imagine if this lesson took root. Would teachers, coaches, and parents be interrupted and belittled by Trumpian children? Would a petulant child respond to a teacher’s admonishments by saying, “I’m just doing a Donald.” It’s possible to imagine bracelets and T-shirts emblazoned with “What Would Trump Do?” In a WWTD world, the bully rules the playground.

These comments about character and style have nothing to do with policy. Some people support Trump because he appoints conservative judges or because he cuts taxes. Reasonable people can disagree about policy. But the triumph of the Trumpian character is a menace to morality.

The ancient Greeks understood that obnoxious boors win elections by inflaming the passions of the people. That’s why Plato thought that democracy was a terrible idea. In the United States we think differently. Our democracy emerged out of the Enlightenment. The American experiment was a product of “the age of reason,” when public debate was supposed to be based on rational arguments and guided by norms of civility.

Safeguards are built into the system to limit the power of demagogues. The system of checks and balances does not, by the way, require debates, rallies, or tweeting. Maybe it’s time to return to a leaner version of democracy — one which does not give a platform to rude and obnoxious behavior.

One way to teach our children not to be like Trump is to stop watching him. This is generally good advice for dealing with rude and obnoxious colleagues and relatives. Leave the room and shut the door. Unfortunately, this isn’t so easy when the boor is the president.

So until Trump is finally shown the door, let’s use his bad behavior to teach our children how not to behave. Let’s teach them that rudeness is wrong. And even though Trump is currently king, it is wise to say, “Don’t be a Donald.”

Civility and the Presidential Campaign

When it comes to civility, do as we say, not as we do

Fresno Bee, February 26, 2016

  • We all benefit from common courtesy
  • Civility is not innate; pop culture and political life undermine it
  • First Amendment freedom should be accompanied by considerate speech

Civility is a great and fragile good. Liberty allows our lips to flap. Common courtesy causes us to keep our mouths shut. Some bristle at the idea of political correctness. But without civility, political life becomes a fistfight.IMG_APTOPIX_GOP_2016_Tru_4_1_6L7ASOFI_L199078247

Donald Trump recently said he would like to punch a protester in the face. Trump extolled “the old days” when a protester like that would be “carried out on a stretcher.” At an earlier rally, Trump repeated an obscene insult directed at Ted Cruz.

Opponents of Trump also use inflammatory rhetoric. More than one pundit has called Trump a fascist. The Fresno State student newspaper even ran a picture withTrump’s face imposed on Hitler’s body in front of the White House.

Political rhetoric often generates more heat than light. But we seem to be rounding a corner, where vulgarity and vitriol trump reasonable argument.

In some parts of the world, politics quickly becomes pugilistic. Fistfights have broken out in legislatures in Japan, Ukraine and elsewhere.

We like to think of ourselves as more evolved. But without civility, are we any better than Kosovo, where legislators set off tear gas bombs in parliament?

Civil and honest speech are essential for democratic life. But civility is not innate. It takes a lot of effort to teach kids to keep their mouths clean, their hands to themselves, and their minds focused on truth.

Pop culture and political life undermine these lessons. Fists and foul language are not normal or acceptable. Crude, rude and obnoxious behavior remains rare and exceptional. Most of the time, most people don’t exchange insults or threaten violence. Profanity and violence are not permitted in schools or in business meetings.

Our schools work hard to curtail bullying and create safe and civil places for children to thrive. Businesses require anti-harassment training. These lessons in political correctness work. Most of us behave civilly most of the time. Those who misbehave get suspended, fired, sued or jailed.

Fear of punishment is not the only thing guiding civil behavior. Most people don’t view life as a competition. We don’t use words as trump cards. We don’t focus on winning. Rather, we exchange ideas.

Civil people engage in dialogue in order to build community and seek understanding. Civil dialogue requires self-restraint and an open mind. An old saying says that we have two ears and one mouth because we ought to listen twice as much as we talk.


The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, including the right to be offensive. But civil people do not say everything that is on our minds. We learn to hold our tongues out of respect for decorum. This may sound old-fashioned and uptight. But tact and discretion are useful skills.

One kindergarten cliché has a kernel of truth: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” A more advanced lesson teaches us to speak low, speak slow, but always speak the truth.

Civil discourse is a fragile fruit, easily destroyed by hot air. One obnoxious boor can ruin a picnic, a party or a political season. Bullies and blowhards infect families, school and the workplace. They rarely stop talking long enough to listen. If they do pose a question, it is usually only to catch their breath in order to continue their harangue.

Bullies want an audience. Blowhards only blow when someone is listening. The best response is often avoidance. Most people have learned to ignore their ornery uncle, cranky colleague or noisome neighbor.

When avoidance is impossible, we can invoke the basic rules of the kindergarten classroom: don’t threaten violence, don’t call people names, tell the truth and be kind to strangers. A more advanced lesson teaches that civility keeps the peace, protects freedom, shows respect for humanity and helps us discover the truth.

Donald Trump has hinted that he can be more civil and play nice. He said that he would be “more presidential” when the time comes. That’s good news. Let’s hope the time comes soon. But until that happens, we should remind our kids that what they are seeing and hearing in the world of politics is behavior that would not be permitted in the boardroom or on the playground.

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