Everything that anyone with a head or a heart needed to know about Donald Trump was obvious on the night of Nov. 25, 2015, when he mocked the severe physical disability of a journalist in front of a hooting, jeering South Carolina crowd. Trump had been caught making the false claim that "thousands and thousands" of Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey, cheered the World Trade Center's collapse on Sept. 11, 2001. Scrambling to defend this lie, Trump cited a 2001 article written by reporter Serge Kovaleski. But Kovaleski had written no such thing and publicly stated as much.
So, Trump did what Trump does. Kovaleski has arthrogryposis, an incurable congenital disease that distorts the movement of his hands and arms. Like the cruelest of schoolyard bullies, Trump crudely imitated Kovaleski with a sneer on his face, reveling in the derisive, approving laughter he had elicited from his audience.
Trump's deeply rooted indecency was on vivid display, but so, too, was the indecency of the crowd that loved it, and of those who watched it from afar and decided they were perfectly OK with it. Nothing we have seen from Donald Trump since — the jaw-dropping dishonesty, the historic corruption, the obstruction of justice and the unadulterated narcissism — is revelatory. All of it is merely confirmatory.
The scene evoked others throughout history that depict ugly depravity. One remembers the sickening photographs of Nazis in 1930s Germany forcing frail elderly Jews to kneel and clean the streets, while their neighbors pointed and laughed. Over and over, we have asked: How could this have happened? How did Germans endorse the cruelty, embrace it, defend it and join in it?
In the 1985 movie classic "Witness," Philadelphia detective John Book, played by Harrison Ford, discovers that his longtime police chief has become just the kind of corrupt cop that the chief had long railed against. "Isn't that what you used to say about dirty cops?" Ford asks him. "Somewhere along the line, they lost the meaning?"
Over half of Americans tell pollsters that religion is very important to them, and most of the other half would nevertheless agree that faith-based values like honesty, fairness, charity, and kindness to strangers and the vulnerable matter to them — and are values they want to matter to their children. But tens of millions of our fellow countrymen have nonetheless defended and helped enable a president who has extended his middle finger to those values with a sneer. He has laughed at the rule of law and whipped up hatred against Americans of color and immigrants, dispensing xenophobic rhetoric with machine gun-like rapidity, stroking white supremacists and stoking white supremacism. The president whom these Americans adore has never read the Bible and could care less about it. He has taken a blow torch to values that form the cornerstone of all religious faiths. And yet, these Americans have not only looked the other way at his conduct; they have often rejoiced in it. In so doing, they have shown that somewhere along the line, they, too, have lost the meaning.
When dozens of his supporters tried to run a Biden-Harris campaign bus off the road in Texas this weekend, a little maneuver that could have killed people, Donald Trump gleefully praised them as "patriots." Trump has pointedly refused to agree to relinquish power peacefully if he loses the election; he gave notice that he would declare victory on election night regardless of whether the uncounted ballots would establish that he lost. His campaign filed suit to invalidate 125,000 votes duly cast pursuant to Texas law because he is afraid he will lose Texas if they are counted. His loyal defenders — in Congress, in the conservative media — profess their devotion to democracy. Their silence proves that is phony.
There is a stain on America. Donald Trump has put it there, but Americans have allowed him to do it. The good news is that we have the chance to remove it, and to start afresh.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.