While meeting with the U.S. Winter Paralympic Team, President Trump praised the Paralympics as “inspiring,” but “hard to watch.” Most people I have contact with feel that he meant that watching disabled athletes do their sports is painful in some way. I have also read suggestions that in context, Trump meant that since he’s so busy, it was hard for him logistically to watch the Paralympics, not that he disliked watching them.
I can’t read President Trump’s mind. Given the circumstances, I actually think these two interpretations are about equally likely to be correct.
However, I can’t help thinking that it would be thoroughly consistent with what we pretty well know about Trump if he really did mean watching disabled athletes is sad, pathetic, or gross to him. Trump strikes me as a man strongly driven by disgust … by visceral reaction against anything he perceives to be ugly, dirty, abnormal, or tainted. He seems to feel this way about immigrants, … especially brown-skinned, non-European immigrants. He also tends to use words like “disgraceful” and “disgusting” a lot to describe anything he disapproves of. This suggests his main mode of judgment is very physical, as opposed to intellectual, ideological, or moral.
Then there’s the much-discussed example of his very physical mocking of Serge Kovoaleski, a visibly disabled reporter, during the 2016 Primaries. That was also an incident where a more benign interpretation was possible, but more unlikely the longer you look at it and get to know Trump’s reactions in various situations. I never thought that incident was much of a big deal, even though I'm pretty convinced he was mocking the man, just like a playground bully. Policies and actions mean a lot more to me, and in a weird way, outright jeering at disabled people tends to be less shocking to actual disabled people than it is to non-disabled observers. Still, this Paralympics comment has me thinking again.
My take is that it's not crucially important how he meant the statement. The incident is, if nothing else, an important reminder that there are still lots of people who aren’t just uninformed about disabled people, but also find disabled people disgusting, physically upsetting, in a very instinctual but profound way. I suspect that Trump is one of those people. I may be wrong. But it’s not actually saying much to suggest that Donald Trump might be disgusted by disabled people. Lots of people are! You don’t even have to be especially evil or hateful to be repelled by watching disabled people on TV or meeting them in person. You can even be disgusted by disabled people, and admire them at the same time.
That’s how ableism works sometimes!