Rarely do you get a second chance to make a first impression.
That’s no secret to Donald Trump, who’s made doubling down on nastiness his signature move for decades and who seems to have found a spiritual twin in Nick Sandmann, the now iconic teenager in the red hat who stood immovable, sneering, leering or grinning for what seemed like hours in front of a Native American elder at the Lincoln Memorial.
Sandmann, who made a terrible impression in the video clips that drew widespread condemnation earlier this week—and then some second thoughts—gave his first interview Wednesday morning before a huge Today show audience. The student decided he would stand his ground with host Savannah Guthrie as he’d done with Nathan Phillips. “As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” said Sandmann, whose parents hired a public relations firm for him.
He explained that he’d felt “threatened” by four members of a fringe group calling themselves Black Hebrew Israelites who’d been hurling insults from a distance. That had “provoked” him and his back-up boy band, one member of which stripped to the waist, cheering, hooting, and making the tomahawk chop.
But the boys’ reaction was not directed at those who’d taunted them. Sandmann aimed his response, like a laser, at an old, frail man whom he seemed to be daring to make a false move. The boy called it “a peaceful response of school spirit.”
After the interview, I had the same question as before: What kind of kids are we raising? What 16-year old gets up in the face of someone old enough to be his grandfather without a glimmer of respect? He should have been thanking Phillips, who’d come over to defuse the situation, not staring him down.
After looking at longer tapes, some felt the situation was more “complicated” than the initial wave of outrage had suggested. Complicated is what a relationship is when you are explaining why you want to end it. The scene remained uncomplicated by the additional context: a large group, led by one kid, surrounding one man who had nothing to do with the Hebrew group.
The video is no longer just a video. It’s a Rorschach test of where you stand on the political spectrum, every frame filtered through existing grievances and prejudices. The red MAGA hat is a trigger, the Catholic school a signifier of conservatism laced with support for Trump. Add to that the students participating in the March for Life earlier and you have a rich brew.
Other than the hats, I didn’t know any of that as I first watched the episode unfold. I know Sandmann’s world. I went to 12 years of Catholic school gratefully. I straddle the mushy middle between pro-life and pro-choice with a hard deadline at 20 weeks. I love those in my family who bask in the recognition Trump gives them. Still, what I saw were bratty kids intimidating an older man who, as a Native American, had been intimidated all too much in his life.
Some in the media apologized for jumping on Sandmann. Jumping is never good but a review of the full tape didn’t change anything important. No one heard “build the wall” chanted, as had been reported, and Phillips walked over to Sandmann’s group, not the other way around. New information should be reported but not given unwarranted significance because it’s new.
Amid those apologies, the president, who not long ago saw “very fine people on both sides” at a Nazi rally, saw an opening to pour a liter of the kerosene he keeps next to his desk over the whole debate. He didn’t even bother to couch his criticism in the equivocal this time. The Catholic boys' encounter, Trump decided, was one more symbol of “Fake News and how evil it can be.”
Trump likes to punch where there’s already a bruise. The press is back on its heels after the Special Counsel’s Office said unspecified parts of BuzzFeed’s bombshell report that Trump had instructed Michael Cohen to lie about when the effort to build a high-rise tower in Moscow stopped were inaccurate. When the special counsel pushes back, the whole media feels it.
Trump infects almost everything around him and it’s likely that this small event went viral thanks to the MAGA hats. Yet it wasn’t only the “resistance” that came away concluding that Sandmann took a give-no-ground stance against Phillips. It was also Sandmann’s school, which you would expect to give him every benefit of the doubt. Administrators at Covington Catholic and the diocese apologized for the conduct.
They’ve commissioned a third party study of what happened.
I have some sympathy for Sandmann. We are setting a bad example for him. We take offense oh so easily. We’d rather fight than talk. Why should we expect teenagers to have a civil conversation in a tense situation when the president and Nancy Pelosi can’t?
There was the slightest regret, if not contrition, on Sandmann’s part when he finally said, “Now, I wish I would’ve walked away.” Therein begins the wisdom that comes with age.
But it hasn’t come to Trump. He’s impulsive and childish, a bully with a terrible temper who believes only losers apologize. He’s used his ensuing power to, literally, wreck the government.
Unlike the man whose hat he wore, Sandmann will have many second chances to make a first impression. Next time it happens, he should take it.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s "Capital Gang" and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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