Daily Kos: Donald Trump and The Dis-inhibition of Insult

This is an excerpt from a Daily Kos column, originally published on April 1, 2020.

The dis-inhibition Trump supporters experienced immediately after the 2016 election was not limited to violence.

One example: ten days after Donald Trump’s election I was teaching a crisis management elective in New York University’s executive MBA program when something unprecedented happened.

I have been on the NYU faculty for more than thirty years, and as of this writing have taught 112 courses; eighteen of them were this seminar in crisis management. Students range in age from late thirties to early sixties. They are all accomplished professionals, who include business people, physicians, retired military officers, and entrepreneurs.

On this Friday morning in November 2016, I was teaching the Abu Ghraib prison crisis, documenting a breakdown in the chain of command of a U.S. Army military police brigade in the notorious Baghdad prison in 2003. I have taught this crisis for more than ten years, both at NYU and to senior officers in the U.S. armed forces. And I have published the case in one of my books. This day there were about thirty-five students in the course. It was our third half-day class, and I still didn’t know all of them.

As I was halfway through the case, three students walked in, very late. It was the first time I had seen them all semester. They had missed the first two classes and were ninety minutes late for the third. They took seats toward the back row of the semicircular tables. Without warning, without raising his hand, without any apology for the interruption, one of these students shouted at me in an angry tone, “If you’re going to condemn the military, I hope you will also cover Hillary and Benghazi!”

I didn’t quite understand what he was up to, but I am accustomed to disruptive students. I walked in his direction, smiled, and asked, “I’m not sure what your point is. How is Benghazi relevant to our discussion?” It was in many ways a trick question. I knew he didn’t know what our discussion was. He had been absent for all of it. He answered, “If you’re going to teach about a U.S. government failure, you should focus on Hillary and Benghazi.”

I replied, “I’m the professor and I get to choose which cases I teach. And the more relevant comparison is not with Benghazi but with some of President Obama’s missteps in the health care debate.” I cover those in the required book for the course.

The student and his two companions stood and walked out of the classroom. By the time the session ended, I had received an email from the disruptive student. This time he changed his argument, from balancing Abu Ghraib with criticism of former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, to challenging the validity of a government case study at all.

His email included, “…using the US govt actions during wartime for analysis is an unnecessary distraction. The pain points and motivations of politicians are vastly different from business leaders – we should be learning from cases more relevant to our purpose for being here in business school. Especially in this polarized political environment.”

Of course, having missed the first two and a half classes—fully eight hours of instruction—he had not been present for the many corporate cases I had already taught, or for the course introduction that made clear that we would cover leadership and crisis across a range of organizations — corporations, governments, universities, not-for-profits, etc. Indeed, there were students in the course from all of those sectors. And the case I was teaching was about something that happened twelve years earlier, not something from the current politically polarized environment. And teaching about Benghazi would indeed have been about the current political environment.

But to me the thing that stood out most was the presumption. This student had missed the first eight hours of the course. He had been present for only a few minutes in the middle of a two-hour case study. And he chose to vocally interrupt the course and challenge the legitimacy of the case the professor was teaching. And after being politely challenged on it, he and his posse walked out and did not return. Instead he sent an email challenging the legitimacy of the case I had taught.

In thirty-two years on the NYU faculty I have had disruptive students. And students who disagreed with me. And students who were antisocial and bullies. But never a student heckler who disrupted and then walked out. And this particular student was not a surly undergraduate with impulse control issues. I later learned that he was quite accomplished, the president of an investment management firm on Wall Street.

When the class ended, a number of the other students gathered around me and apologized for their classmate’s outburst. They said that he had been that way ever since the election. That Trump’s election had empowered him to lash out at other professors, classmates, and pretty much anyone who he thought did not share his political views. I then realized that I was wearing a safety pin on my suit jacket. It may have triggered his anger at me.

His reference to Hillary and Benghazi should have tipped me off. President-elect Trump had made Hillary Rodham Clinton the target of his vitriol during the campaign that had just ended, leading crowds in chants of “Lock her up!”

I had noticed — and had written and counseled clients about — the dis-inhibition that Trump supporters had begun to exhibit in their treatment of people they perceived as “other” — African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, etc. But I had never been on the receiving end of that dis-inhibition. The social conventions that normally keep such aggressive behavior in check seemed to have been obliterated during the campaign, and the election seemed to validate that obliteration. I worried about what would happen during the presidency itself.

Read the full column here.

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