M. Gamble See is a sophomore economics major.
My breath hangs heavy on the brisk autumn morning at Camp Pendleton, California. The time and place are familiar; I’ve done this many times. I rest my cheek against the cool butt-stock of my rifle, and look off into the distance at a black dot 500 meters away. I slow my breathing, making it regular and deep. My scope’s crosshairs quarter the bulls-eye as I exhale. I slowly squeeze the trigger. A woodpecker haphazardly drills at a nearby pine tree, but I don’t hear it. I exhale, and the crosshairs split the mark again. I squeeze some more, and a shot rings out. The intended target is struck, and nothing else. Bulls-eye. The point of marksmanship is to hit the target; this purpose necessitates careful aim. However, imagine a world where the soldier, or the hunter, does not aim with care; they are reckless and simply enjoy pulling the trigger. In this other world, the soldier and the hunter are much like the woodpecker, striking over and over again, hoping to hit something of substance eventually, but not caring about the damage it wreaks along the way.
Political rhetoric today, particularly among the current Republican presidential candidates, is quite the opposite of precision marksmanship. Instead of precise strikes at issues or opponents, candidates spray their “bullets” or even throw “grenades.” This has the effect of sometimes hitting the intended target, but it also nearly always includes collateral damage. This collateral damage consequently degrades American political discourse. Words are like bullets: they can deter; they can defend; they can devastate. No other presidential candidate has been more destructive in this past year than Donald Trump.
From the inception of his campaign, Trump has demonstrated a disregard for the impact of his words, and a wanton callousness for the injury his words cause. In a speech last June to announce his candidacy for president, the current GOP front-runner labeled Mexicans as criminals, more specifically rapists. He stated, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” This appeared to be Trump’s attempt to build support for his stance on immigration, as well as his plan for a 50-foot wall on our southern border with Mexico. However, of the 5.5 million immigrants from Mexico who are living in America illegally, how many rightly deserve the label “rapist?” While I do believe it is necessary for the preservation of our domestic security to have criteria for legal immigration, and that such prudent criteria should be followed, I do not believe anyone should accuse or even insinuate that the person who steals a pastry has also pillaged the bakery and dismembered the baker. Such defamation is more an injustice than that of entering our borders without the leave to do so.
Trump’s bombastic style and disregard for convention has also devastated the field he is running against. Other candidates such as Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, who largely resisted Trump’s baiting, often looked passive, or even weak, in the face of Trump’s onslaught. Both Bush and Carson have bowed out of the race in recent weeks. The candidates that remain have adapted to the battle not by rising above the din, but by joining the fray. Rolling Stone Magazine dubbed the GOP candidate field as the “GOP Clown Car”; I assert that Donald Trump is the driver. Trump doesn’t merely blare on the horn, or cut people off; he plows through the crowds, at full speed, leaving a wake of chaos and harm, and pulling others down the same dark road. As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone put it, “for the candidates, it [is] toss grenades or die.” While the terms “mudslinging” and “dirt-digging” are not foreign to politics and campaigns, this year’s attacks seem to have sunk to even lower levels of sludge than the political norm. However, it has not always been this way.
In earlier times, political debates in America were characterized by logic, reasoning, and engagement. This is not to say all arguments were reasonable or logical, but that these devices were at least employed. One of the classic examples of debate in our history was the series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, now often referred to as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. On Oct.13, 1858, instead of the name-calling of today, Lincoln asserted, “when Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.” Now I can easily think of several “names” for those people that advocated for slavery and the many additional crimes that it was often shackled with, but Lincoln restrained himself to precision in his efforts to address the issue of slavery itself.
Trump continues to dominate the press. Though his campaign continues to entertain, as comedy or as horror I’m not yet decided, one can hope that the frenzy will fade and more reasonable messages will begin to take root and grow. Until that time, all I hear is the incessant rap-tap-tapping of a woodpecker with a Paul Bunyan-sized beak. If by chance the woodpecker strikes a bulls-eye, it is more likely that a falling tree smashed it than a well-constructed volley found its mark.