March 11, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

How normal is Trump’s sadism?

The answer will determine whether voters forgive him.

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Donald Trump was in Georgia over the weekend. He said: “I will seal the border … I will stop the plunder of our cities, the sacking of our towns and the conquest of our country, the conquering of our country. These people are conquering our country. They’re horrible people.”

He won’t. He doesn’t care. I’ll keep repeating it. He. Does. Not. Care. 

If he cared about stopping “horrible people” from “conquering our country,” he would have supported solutions to “the problem,” like those found in the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill. It would have given the GOP virtually everything they have wanted for two decades, including $650 million for the construction of a border wall. Instead, Trump killed the bill (by way of House Speaker Mike Johnson), because he doesn’t care about solving “the problem,” only exploiting it.

His supporters don’t care either. If they did, according to radio host Reecie Colbert, they would have nominated someone like Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley, whose policy proposals were practically the same. They didn’t, though, because “they wanted the boastfulness and the brazenness of the bigotry that Donald Trump normalizes,” she said. “That’s why a person who supports Trump feels emboldened to get on national TV and make a blatantly sexist comment. That’s the future of America, even more so under another term of Donald Trump.”

If the Washington press corps’ reaction to it is any indication, the answer is probably a lot. During that Georgia rally, over the weekend, Trump mocked Joe Biden’s stutter. “‘I’m gonna bring the country tuh-tuh-tuh-together,’” he said. The audience roared with laughter. 

I would take Miss Reecie’s thinking a step farther to say that policy solutions, even for makebelieve problems like “the plunder of our cities,” are a form of caring that takes all the fun out of sadism. 

Yes, sadism – the deriving of pleasure from the pain and suffering of others. More than anything else, Trump represents that. More than anything else, his supporters desire that. As Humam Abd al-Salam said: “‘Why are people so easily offended these days?’ is code for ‘Why can’t I bully everyone like I used to?’” Policy solutions are party-poopers.

How normalized is his sadism?

If the Washington press corps’ reaction to it is any indication, the answer is probably a lot. During that Georgia rally, over the weekend, Trump mocked Joe Biden’s stutter. “‘I’m gonna bring the country tuh-tuh-tuh-together,’” he said. The audience roared with laughter. 

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on strongman politics, said: “He does it to evoke the laughter that makes the crowd complicit and reinforces the culture of cruelty he requires to realize his dreams of mass repression.” 

But McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic, whom I take to be representative of the conventions of the Washington press corps, said: “It’s hard to find anything new to say at this point when Trump does stuff like this. The smallness and meanness are hardly surprising.”

It’s so hard to find new things to say about Trump’s sadism that it has little presence in “the narrative” about the election. USA Today’s Susan Page, whom I also take to be representative of the press corps, said that it’s a rematch “no one wanted” and “voters dismiss language that might once have caused a stir. Just Trump being Trump, some say.”

A recent analysis by the Times, published after Thursday’s State of the Union address, went so far as to say that while a majority of voters has clamored for “change” since the American invasion of Iraq, more than 20 years ago, this year’s election is just more of the same. “Americans, who by nearly every measure are hungering for a new direction, are confronted with the choice between a continuation or a restoration,” wrote the Times’ Adam Nagourney and Shane Goldmacher.

But more than Trump’s sadism is edited out of this narrative. 

So is Biden’s kindness.

After Trump mocked Joe Biden’s stutter, over the weekend, in that Georgia rally, a video went around showing the president, while on the campaign trail in 2020, encouraging a young boy who also stutters. “I’ll tell you what,” Biden told him. “Don’t let it define you. You are smart as hell, now you really are. You can do this.” He asked the boy for his phone number. “I can tell you the things that worked for me,” he said.

“I know by the way the hardest thing is talking on the telephone, so I don’t expect you to be able to do that,” Biden said. “When I stuttered, I used to t-t-t-talk like, like th-th-th-this. It took a lot of practice. But I promise you, I promise you, you can do it. And don’t let it define you. You’re handsome. You’re smart. You’re a good guy. I really mean it.”

“You know when I say I know about bullies. You know about bullies, the kids who make fun. It’s going to change, honey. I promise you.”

This isn’t an isolated event. He’s been doing this kind of thing for his entire career, making “the connect,” as Jennifer Senior put it recently, her neologism to describe his extraordinary ability for reading the room – to locate the common emotional denominator among people. 

“The connect” is the secret to Biden’s successful coalition-building. And understanding that, said USA Today columnist Chris Brennan, is what sets the candidates apart. “Trump wants obedience. Biden wants votes. He knows the presidency is won through coalition-building, not by bullying voters. He isn’t turning anyone away,” Brennan wrote.

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Obedience or support? Sadism or kindness? 

These polar opposites are not more of the same, unless by more of the same, we mean they have defined American politics since forever.

One is “a way forward,” as the president said in the State of the Union address on Thursday, toward “core values that have defined America,” such as “honesty, decency, dignity, equality. To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbor.” 

The other is the way backward, not only toward “resentment, revenge and retribution,” but also toward not caring about anything, not even makebelieve problems, only the pleasure of other people’s pain. Policy solutions are a form of caring that takes all the fun out of sadism. 

“I know how far we’ve come,” Biden said. “Four years ago next week, before I came to office, the country was hit by the worst pandemic and the worst economic crisis in a century. Remember the fear, record losses. Remember the spikes in crime and the murder rate, raging virus that took more than one million American lives of loved ones, millions left behind, a mental health crisis of isolation and loneliness.” He added:

“My predecessor failed the most basic presidential duty that he owes to the American people: the duty to care. I think that’s unforgivable.” 

How unforgivable? It depends. 

On how normal sadism is.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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