Pocahontas, again: Who will call out the name-calling?


Donald Trump referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas [again] at a meeting with a group of Senators at the White House yesterday. Did anyone at the meeting speak out to object to this juvenile name-calling? We don’t know, because there is no published transcript of the full meeting. But it’s probably a safe bet to assume that no one did, because if they had, it would have been all over social media by now.

The headline says, “Trump insults Elizabeth Warren at ‘awkward’ White House meeting.”

Journalists were initially present for the Thursday meeting at the White House, but escorted out after a photo-op and a couple of questions.

As soon as photographers and reporters had filed out of the Roosevelt Room, Trump jeered at the gathered Democrats, “Pocahontas is now the face of your party,” according to officials familiar with what was discussed. The pejorative was in reference to Warren’s rebuke of newly instated Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this week, which triggered Senate Republicans to formally silence her, and left-leaning Americans to celebrate her.

Does the headline mean that his slur—and make no mistake about it, “Pocahontas” is meant as an insult, not just to Elizabeth Warren but to all Native Americans—went unchallenged?  The use of the word “awkward” implies that the response was awkward silence. So, it seems that the people at the table just politely went along. That is tacit approval. Silence is complicity.

Here’s who was sitting at the table with Trump, saying nothing, according to Politico: Sens. Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Tester, Lamar Alexander, Chris Coons, Shelley Moore Capito, John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Joe Donnelly and Michael Bennet. Also at the table were Vice President Mike Pence and White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus.

I’m not surprised at their complicit silence, but I am morally outraged that, apparently, not one of those people had the courage to say anything. Some options might have included: “Aw, c’mon Mr. President, can’t we move on from the name-calling?” Or, “I think we should all feel offended by the use of a slur to describe a sitting U.S. Senator.” No one took the chance.

But, of course, these are the same people who voted, just a few days earlier, to invoke Rule 19 to silence Sen. Warren when she justifiably criticized Jeff Sessions as nominee for US Attorney General. What was I thinking?
“No big deal, we have bigger fish to fry, bigger issue to deal with,” some might say to my call for calling out the name-calling. I disagree. It is a big deal. Trump got away with his grade-school, schoolyard bullying and name-calling during the presidential campaign, because people and the news media generally dismissed the behavior as “just campaign talk.” That may be true: A lot of nasty, inappropriate things are said during campaigns. But Trump is now in the White House: It’s no longer excusable.

Of course, we should be standing against the Bannon-Trump administrations most egregious policies and actions [so far]: the Muslim travel ban, the attempted shutdown of press access, the shameless financial conflicts of interest, the blatant lies. But at the same time, we—and especially those inside the power circles of Washington—should object to these more private, yet very damaging, “smaller” behaviors as well.

What difference does it make? A lot. When people who could stop them silently condone bad behaviors like Trump’s, the behaviors become normalized and accepted. You can’t let the little things slide [and I don’t really regard racial slurs a “little thing.”] Sure, you have to pick your battles. I understand that. But people in positions of power and responsibility should have zero tolerance for these semi-public, public, and even private expressions of intolerance and meanness. This is not about political correctness. This is about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what is not okay behavior for a president. [If this sounds like a conversation one might have with a toddler—unfortunately, this is the immature presidential mentality that we are now forced to deal with.]

Remember the “Broken Window Theory?” It’s a concept—developed by criminologists—in which:

… a “broken window” is a symbol of unaccountability. If one window in a building is broken and left unfixed, they argue, it is likely that the rest of the windows will be broken soon, too. The idea is that people ..take cues from their surroundings and calibrate their behavior based on what they see.

You can agree or disagree with how the Broken Window Theory has been applied to policing in American cities, but there’s a truth in the notion that applies to what happened at that White House meeting yesterday. We are at the beginning of the Trump presidency: He has already begun to break windows. Don’t tell me it’s too early to stop him, because if he is allowed to continue, unchecked, things are going to get much worse.

Undoubtedly, there are going to be many more occasions like yesterday’s White House meeting, where participants will witness the same destructive language, attitude and behaviors. Who will be the first to speak up? Anyone?

And in case they need a role model, here is how it is done: Joseph N. Welch vs. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.