A pall of gray light covers this October Homewood morning. On this particular Saturday morning, America is waking up to the fallout of two storms, of sorts. A natural disaster, Hurricane Matthew, is surging of the Atlantic Coast, threatening to make landfall on the Carolina coast, to later dump a foot of rain on coastal towns. Meanwhile, the fallout of the Donald J. Trump bombshell tapes continues to dominate cable news, proving that some disasters are entirely man made.
Next to me lies my 11-year-old daughter, a middle schooler named Avery, who has managed to wedge herself between my wife, Abby, and me.
Avery is a kickboxer of a sleeper, with formidable strength in her legs that burst into action with no warning. If I were to probe Avery’s mind, I’d probably discover that it is the thought of clowns standing outside her window that sent her running to our bed.
Avery is the most physical member of the Ratliff clan. During the school day, Avery pursues drumming in the Homewood Middle School band. There, she wrestles with the rudiments of percussion technique, learning patterns with rhythmic, comical names like paradiddle and flam, and picking out melodies on a beginner glockenspiel. After school and on weekends, she is an autodidact gymnast who can be seen in her small bedroom practicing moves so contorted that they make me wince.
Her sister, Bailey, who is two years older, shares none of Avery’s indefatigable physicality. She is a secluded introvert who spends tremendous swaths of time in her room, collapsed in studious indolence of texting, reading, and scribbling. She escapes, in part, I suspect, to engage in a behavior that Abby and I have tried to curtail, with no success. Bailey suffers from trichotillomania, a medical term for compulsive hair pulling. We don’t know why she does this, nor does Bailey. Bailey’s hair will grow out, reach a certain length that seems to be her cue to twirl and yank, twirl, and yank, until bald patches appear.
As a self-conscious middle schooler, Bailey has learned how to style her hair to cover up the gaping holes. As an oblivious preschooler, Bailey’s peculiarity was on view to all. Almost a decade ago, a young girl approached Bailey in Target and handed her a stuffed animal. “I want you to have this,” the girl said. Abby and I immediately understood the girl’s motivation: Bailey, her head ravaged by a bad month of pulling, looked like a cancer patient. We assured the girl that Bailey was basically OK, just somewhat different in this one regard. The girl insisted that Bailey keep the toy, anyway, and imprinted on me a lesson in empathy that I will never forget.
Bailey and Avery are two very different people, but they’ll wake up this morning to a shared reality. They live in a country that has made Donald J. Trump the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. Trump’s nihilism has many targets, but it is his utter contempt for women and the support that it has found in the American electorate that have me worried. What does this misogyny say about the America they live in, and what is lurking in the thoughts and patterns of American men they will one day encounter?
I can look within myself for some clues. I’m no Trump, but to my discredit, I have been the Billy Bush of similar dramas: sycophantic, eager to gain admission into the alpha’s inner circle, laughing along at jokes I didn’t find funny. I suspect many men have responded similarly when someone like Trump invites us to step inside the circle of power, and I’m really not sure why we take the bait. There is something in that circle we’re after — a promotion, money, access to sex. Stripped bare of pretensions, perhaps it’s love that we’re after, and with self-sabotaging exactitude, we seek it precisely where it isn’t. Had we all simply stepped away from the invitation, as we should have, that circle wouldn’t be a circle — just a solitary bloated man, raging on about the powers of his penis.
Until we all step away, Abby and I insist that our daughters understand that the world they live in is not always a just one. This is why Abby and I decided that we will show the Bailey and Avery the Trump video. They have heard the words in that video, before, and to varying degrees understand its implications. Two months shy of her 14th birthday, Bailey is concerned with campus violence against women. As a 6th grader, Avery expresses her concerns about gender according to a simple calculus: If boys can do it, girls can, too. That means being encouraged to play drums even as most girls choose clarinet or flute, and it means for some intrepid souls being allowed to play on the football team. After viewing the video, Bailey will likely pick up on the the inhumanity of Trump’s words and how violence and power loomed ominously over the scene. Avery will mostly hear the bad language, but soon enough, she will better understand the sinister implications.
That language implies a moral system, a sliding scale of skewed negatives and positives. We heard the positive values of this distorted system in Trump’s lewd comments about breasts and genitalia. Judging from his words, this is what women are to Trump, the crass and inhuman values he assigns them. From my admittedly distant vantage point, it seems a much easier manifestation to recognize, and then respond to. If a boy spoke of one my daughters the way Trump did about Nancy O’Dell or Arianne Zucker, my response would likely not be printable — I couldn’t guarantee it would even be verbal.
But the negatives in this system are slipperier. What if you are not pretty? What if age or disability or some physical peculiarity lessens your appeal to the Trumps of the world. If Bailey is still pulling her hair, will boys look past that the splotches of scabs and scalp to see the lovely person that the little girl in Target was able to see? Often the responses to such by Trump and his kind aren’t outright ridicule or scorn (though it can be that, too, as Trump’s delusional comments about Alicia Machado’s weight show us), but a steady drip of indifference or devaluation. Deciding someone is invisible is a passive sort of violence. How does a parent respond to that? If I tried, I’d be swinging at shadows.
If that sounds like paranoia, I’ll submit that Trump is no moral anomaly. Polls currently show that Donald Trump enjoys the support of about 40 percent of the American electorate. To be sure, not all of that 40 percent is not so much enthused about Trump as opposed to Hillary Clinton. But within that range resides a core of avid devotees, those for whom his controversies are not liabilities to be rationalized, but assets to be embraced. Facebook is lighting up with men—and, bizarrely, women—rising to his defense, those who see no difference between mere vulgarities and the assaultive imagery Trump evoked.
I’ll expect this sort of confusion from my 11 year old for another year or two. But I have no patience for 40 year olds who confuse reading a naughty word in Fifty Shades of Grey with declarations like Donald Trump’s. It is either wilful, collusive rationalization on behalf of the status quo I don’t want my children to have to navigate, or it’s stupidity. Either way, the world Trump and his hard-core faithful envision would be a bleak one for my daughters. I don’t accept threats looming in his words as a storm they’ll just have to weather.