Donald Trump's fantasies of sexual assault have created quite a storm — as they should. It is a sad testament to how debased our politics has become that the Republican presidential nominee is a man who has gleefully boasted of kissing women against their will and grabbing them by their genitals. That a man so brutish and morally insensate is within striking distance of the White House is a sad indication of how far we have fallen.
But lost in the furor was an equally egregious argument Trump made last week. It, too, amply demonstrates just how unfit he is to hold office.
In 1989, a 28-year-old jogger was attacked and brutally assaulted in Central Park. After two days of intense questioning, five young black and Latino men confessed to the crime. They soon retracted their confessions, which contradicted one another in any case. No DNA ever connected them to the scene, but they were nevertheless sentenced to prison terms of between five and fifteen years each.
Two weeks after the attacks, Donald Trump took out ads in four major New York newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated. Although he did not mention the Central Park Five (as the young men came to be known) by name, it was clear whom he wanted the state to execute.
Years later, in 2002, a convicted rapist and murderer confessed to the crime. This time, the DNA matched. The Central Park Five were freed, and the city eventually settled a lawsuit, paying the men $41 million in compensation.
According to Donald Trump, justice has decidedly not been served.
Appearing on CNN last week, Trump declared that, "They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that the case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same."
The fact that DNA evidence showed that another man, who had confessed of his own accord, was guilty of the crime matters to Trump not a whit. Evidence be damned. In Donald Trump's world he, and he alone, is the arbiter of guilt and innocence.
There is so much that is distressing about Trump's remarks that it is difficult to know where to start.
In the first place, the story constitutes yet more evidence of Trump's delusional grandiosity. The legal system has done its work; it has been widely accepted that the men were innocent — but no, Trump knows better.
Second, of course, is Trump's cavalier indifference to the truth. As he has shown time and again over the course of his presidential campaign, he is not one to let facts get in the way of whatever narrative he happens to be peddling. The non-partisan Politifact.com rates no fewer than 149 of Trump's claims either "false" or "pants on fire" (Hillary Clinton's total, in contrast, is 33).
Third, Donald Trump is a man who by temperament seems unable to admit errors and misdeeds and apologize for them. Even as the roof was falling in on his campaign this past weekend, Trump could not apologize without immediately adding his assessment that former U.S. President Bill Clinton was worse.
Yet, as anyone with even a modicum of emotional maturity understands, when you are truly sorry for something, you don't reflexively insist that what the other guy did was worse. You simply take responsibility and repent. Full stop. So unpracticed is Trump in the art of taking responsibility that he does not even seem to know how to fake it; he fails even at *acting* contrite. Sure enough, during his second debate with Clinton he felt the need to explain (repeatedly) that jokes about assaulting women are simply part of locker room discourse.
Fourth, Trump's insistence that the Central Park Five were guilty is evidence of his deep racial animus. It's as if he just can't imagine that these five young men, whom he no doubt sees as thugs and hoodlums, could possibly be innocent. As Jay Willis notes in GQ, "Trump can't let the Central Park Five go, because their innocence and exoneration do not fit" into the story he has told about protecting White America from "nonexistent mobs of scary, scary brown people who are coming for you in the night."
Pointing out the shameless hypocrisy in Trump criticizing Clinton for her use of the word "superpredator," Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, told Mother Jones, "She well within her right could have said, 'Well you took out a full-page ad calling for the execution — the lynching, the death — of young black and Latino men — and you have never apologized.'" Not only has he not apologized, but as is his way, he has dug in.
Fifth — and perhaps most worryingly — Trump evidently thinks he should be able to decide when to use force, at his "pleasure," whether it's against women or against black men (or, as he made clear during the debate, against his political opponents). Trump's fantasies of sexual assault and his race-baiting are thus cut from the same cloth.
GOP leaders have been up in arms about Trump's brutal and degrading talk about women. But there has been a deafening silence around his racist attack on these men, who have surely suffered enough for a crime they did not commit.
Donald Trump and his enablers and apologists have a lot to apologize for, and many people to apologize to. They have brought this country low in ways I fear we do not yet begin to understand.
Donald Trump's grandiosity and dishonesty; his inability to imagine, let alone admit, that he was mistaken; and his wide-ranging and well-documented bigotry render him utterly unfit for public office (and polite company). He and his candidacy are a disgrace to this great nation.
Rabbi Shai Held is co-founder and dean at Mechon Hadar, and previously served as scholar-in-residence at Kehilat Hadar in New York City. He is the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence and the forthcoming The Heart of Torah.
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