Vail Daily column: Put down put-downs

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Why does Donald Trump use bullying put-downs in his run for the presidency?

He slams challengers. Trump humiliated former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina for her looks. He ordered Jeb Bush to amp up when debating because “he’s got low energy.” Trump believes Mexican immigrants are “rapists.” And Syrians who flee their homeland are subversives aiming to destroy America. During his petty feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Trump continues his insulting tirades.

He exposes why a belligerent strategy works in his best-seller “The Art of the Deal.” This self-congratulatory book reveals Trump hasn’t changed much from the bully who wrote it three decades ago.

Then, Trump advised that business success rises from public attention, even if it’s negative. “Good publicity is preferable to bad,” he writes, “but from the bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all.” Controversy puts top performers in the spotlight. Focus the spotlight on yourself, advises Trump.

Who does he sound like?

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Remember the biblical story of an “amazing” giant blessed (or cursed) with a Trumpian penchant for bombast. Goliath strode into a valley and bellowed at ancient Hebrew soldiers who were holed up on a hillside. This gargantuan Philistine questioned the manhood of Hebrew combatants. He bragged, “I defy the ranks for Israel’s army. Give me a man, that we may fight against each other” (I Samuel 17:10). Implying Israel’s soldiers were wimps, Goliath expressed a vintage Trump put-down.

The giant bragged he was so huge no enemy could defeat him. Young David, armed with a slingshot, surmised that the giant was so big he couldn’t miss. Perspective counts in fighting life’s battles, doesn’t it?

Trump played Goliath in an epic “Battles of Billionaires” on TV in 2007. No wimp himself, Vince McMahon, who growls and shouts as head of WrestleMania, took on the Trumpster. The Donald barked, “I’m taller than you. I’m better-looking than you. I think I’m stronger than you.”

Trump’s presidential bid parallels this hostile verbal exchange. His insults echo barbs thrown between contestants in the nastiest presidential tussle ever, the election of 1800, which Thomas Jefferson barely won.

Jefferson’s critics, mostly church-going folks in the Federalist Party, called him an atheist because he dismissed large sections of the Bible as stuffed with superstitions. In September 1800 before the presidential election between Jefferson and incumbent John Adams, the muckraking Gazette of the United States smeared Monticello’s front-runner.

Headlines screamed about “the only question to be asked of every American is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to God — and a religious president or impiously declare for Jefferson and no God?’”

Thumbs up for God forced a vote against Jefferson, declared Christians in the Federalist Party headed by President Adams.

Put-downs increased, rampaging like water rushing through a broken dike. Federalists condemned Jeffersonians as “atheists, infidels, drunkards, anarchists, libertines, deists (deniers of the Triune God), sniveling fanatics, reptiles, desperadoes, yelpers of the Democratic kennels (Jefferson’s political party), tools of a baboon, frog-eating, blood-drinking cannibals, gallican (French) traitors, demons of sedition, slave-driving nabobs and scum of the political pot.”

Sounding like these vulgar colonials, Trump is a put-down master who expresses what’s curt, cutting and condemnatory. Full of his insulting self, he’s visibly impressed with his “amazing” self-image. He blisters opponents with put-downs.

Such pride acts like cancer that even afflicts politicians we admire. Winston Churchill bestrides the 20th century as a giant whose speeches helped stop the Nazis aerial blitz against Britain in 1940. Historian William Manchester records that Sir Winston recited too many of his press clippings. “His idea of a good dinner, he said, was to dine well and then discuss a good topic — ‘with myself as the chief conversationalist.’”

Churchill stayed in bed, listening repeatedly to recordings of his speeches. “Once he and his valet had words. Afterward, Churchill rumbled: ‘You were rude.’ His manservant, forgetting his station, said, ‘You were rude, too.’ Churchill pouted. After a moment, he said, ‘But I am a great man’” (“The Last Lion: William Spencer Churchill”).

Great and not-so-great minds express humiliating snubs, as Winston Churchill and Donald Trump testify. Put-downs and politics run alongside each other.

Put-downs are lethal. They corrode the human spirit, like contaminated water flowing through lead pipes in Flint, Michigan.

Put-down artists may be witty and cruel, entertaining and insufferable, revered and ruthless. Inflated ego stamps their identity, leaving sparse room for God to whispers: “Be humble.”

Cultivate humility by putting down put-downs.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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