By Ian Pattison
When Joe Biden confirmed Kamala Harris as his U.S. vice-presidential running mate this week, nasty went full-on. It started with President Donald Trump who, knowing the grave additional danger such a formidable woman poses to his political future, called Harris “a liar,” “nasty,” “mean” and, his favourite, “horrible.” The gall of the provocateur-in-chief knows no bounds. His own penchant for meanness is astonishing.
Asked about Harris during Tuesday's press briefing, the president hurled insults that played into racist and sexist stereotypes about Black women. He purposely and repeatedly mispronounced her first name. He revived the silly Obama birther theory that Harris, of East Indian and Jamaican descent, may not be eligible to even run as VP because of where she was born -- Oakland, California, by the way.
A Trump campaign ad goes after Harris as part of the "radical left." In fact, she’s centre-left. This will be their main talking point ahead of November’s election. It seems not to have occurred to most Trump supporters that, in the main, Democrats want to use policy and tax revenue to make life better for the general public while the Republicans under Trump are laser-focused on enriching private enterprise.
During and since the Democratic race that picked Biden, Trump has sneeringly called him “Sleepy Joe.” Beanie Sanders was “Crazy Bernie.” Trump called Elizabeth Warren “goofy” “lowlife” and the racist name “Pochahontas” as recently as this week. Beto O’Rourke was “a flake.” My, what a clever man.
He mocked Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar as “a Snowman(woman)!” for “talking proudly of fighting global warming while standing in a virtual blizzard of snow, ice and freezing temperatures.” That the U.S. president doesn’t understand the varied effects of one of the two most urgent dangers to mankind is unnerving, the other being the coronavirus of which he is dangerously ignorant.
Lists of Trump’s nicknames-calling are all over the internet, picked up and repeated by millions who share his zeal for enmity.
What is it that makes Trump and so many other people these days so mean? Why are there so many rude, crude comments directed at politicians, and so many conspiracy theories that develop around what they say and do?
The discourse concerning Justin Trudeau has sunk to levels unbefitting Canada. Sure, he’s put himself in conflicts of interest on a number of occasions and may yet pay a political price for them. But the prime minister’s detractors ignore the larger record and revel in finding new lows in how they describe him. There have been social media posts locally calling for Trudeau to be lynched.
Police are investigating a man who filmed himself last week launching into a hateful diatribe outside Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna’s constituency office. The man accused the minister of lying about how much the government is spending on infrastructure. “I don’t go to work every day and bust my f—ing ass for this f—ing c— to steal our f—ing money,” he said. “You’re all scumbags. You’re all f—ing pieces of trash.” Last year, vulgar slurs were spray-painted on her office.
Threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal cabinet ministers number 130 so far this year, up from 100 during the same period last year, according to RCMP data obtained by the Toronto Star.
“Canadians don’t want this. We can’t stand for it,” McKenna said Monday. Unfortunately, some Canadians do want this. For a long time most people didn’t have to experience these depravities. Social media has changed all that, emboldening those who might otherwise keep their vile thoughts to themselves and forcing the rest of us to see and hear them.
“My family, staff and I deal with abusive behaviour on a regular basis,” McKenna said, noting that social media platforms have some responsibility for the vitriol directed at public figures.
“These people just want attention. The only attention they should get is from law enforcement.”
Last year during testimony at a Commons committee looking at the SNC-Lavalin affair, then clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick warned that the worsening political climate and discourse in Canada could lead to prominent politicians, their staff and even constituency MPs being shot. Wernick has since said that he is most concerned about social media, the dark web, and chat boards where conspiracy theorists peddle their bunk.
Psychologists tell us there are seven root causes of this sort of behaviour aside from the frustrations and pressures of modern-day life. They include low self-esteem, personal problems, learned behaviour and “brain strain” caused by technology overload.
Psychologists have also looked at conspiracy theories and found that reasons for believing in them can be grouped into three categories: the desire for understanding and certainty, the desire for control and security, and the desire to maintain a positive self-image.
Minus these qualities, some Americans believe the 9/11 attack was orchestrated by the government, the moon landing was filmed in Hollywood, and Oswald did not act alone in the Kennedy assassination. The extreme “Pizzagate” theory that Hillary Clinton and other leading U.S. politicians sexually abuse, chop up and eat children still has online traction.
Here in Canada, there are those who believe that Tim Horton’s coffee is so popular because it’s laced with a narcotic, that the NHL is secretly biased against Canadian teams (the Leafs don’t help to dispel this), and that Justin Trudeau is really Fidel Castro’s son.
Some conspiracy theories are light-hearted fun. Others are dangerous and lately, we’ve got one of those in full flight. It says that masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus are some trick by government to control the population and that vaccines, once they are developed, will contain chips to track and further control people. A May study at Carleton University found that 46 per cent of Canadians believe at least one of four COVID-19 conspiracy theories being promulgated largely by the movement against vaccines.
Sorry for the buzz-kill, anti-vaxxers, but here’s information that no one should ignore. Despite all that we’ve learned about COVID-19, and all the precautions that are available, it took six months for the world to reach 10 million cases and it took the last six weeks for that number to double. Places like New Zealand and British Columbia, which appeared to have all but quelled the virus, are showing troubling new cases. The U.S., where the Trump administration is wilfully ignoring its own medical advisers, reported the highest single-day death toll since mid-May on Wednesday.
Because of confusion around this new virus, and understandable doubts about the rush to perfect a vaccine, the anti-vax movement has seized upon fear to spread the kind of malicious misinformation that it uses to demonize the annual flu vaccine. The same proven processes used to test and perfect the flu vaccine are being used in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Masks help to protect you and others from the virus that many more people are carrying than too-minimal testing has confirmed.
Don’t let those willing to believe the worst cause you to ignore the best advice available from trusted medical authorities, including your own doctor.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.