I knew Fred Phelps. Fred Phelps was not really a friend of mine. Mr. President, you may be another Fred Phelps.
I knew Fred before he went totally crazy, back in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a civil rights lawyer in Topeka, Kan., who ran for governor a couple of times, lost big and turned his considerable energies to his tiny church and his nationwide campaign of hatred toward LGBT humans.
In the long run, it backfired on him big time.
As more LGBT people came out of the closet, gay rights increasingly became normal and sympathetic. The anti-gay side was increasingly personified by the hateful Phelps group picketing funerals and sending really nasty faxes. (Including one that blasted the newspaper I was then running for its support for gay rights and included a caricature of me in fishnet stockings and a Rocky Horror Picture Show get-up. If only my legs were that good.)
Given how quickly public attitudes and laws concerning LGBT people have changed since, it seems reasonable to assume that there were many people out there who just didn’t want to be like Fred.
Opposing gay rights was something that Phelps did. Phelps was one ugly SOB. Ever-larger numbers of people didn’t want to be anything like Phelps. So they turned — rather rapidly, by the standards of human history — to the opposite side of the issue.
Right now, as the protests against racism and police brutality are big and getting bigger, the thing that seems to be driving the growing public support for the demonstrations and the causes behind them is not so much that people support those causes, though they do, but that the orangutan in the White House opposes them.
If Joe Biden, or Barack Obama, or either Clinton, or any of the Bushes, or Mitt Romney or Bernie Sanders was the president right now, and an iPhone video of an unarmed black man being slowly squished to death by a white policeman was on everyone’s social media feed, the official reaction at the highest levels of our government would be the correct one.
The president and the vice president and the attorney general and the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy and the lieutenant governor of Iowa would all say the necessary things about how awful it was and how things like this have no place in America.
Commissions would be appointed. Congressional hearings would be held. Candidates of both parties would compete to be the one who was best suited to Actually Do Something about it.
It would matter, a little, if they really meant it or were just saying what they thought they were supposed to say. Either way, it would likely take a lot of the air out of the balloon.
In normal circumstances, people who were utterly destroyed by that, and other, atrocities, and those who were ticked off, and people who just sort of knew it was wrong, would probably, in reverse order, stand down. Accept the word of the leaders and would-be leaders that they were on it. That it would change. This time. Really. Trust us.
But right now we all feel, we all know, that we can’t trust them. At least not the president, the members of his administration who haven’t already bailed out in disgust, the members of Congress and of his party who continue to support him. So we know we can’t go back to normal life and let the people in charge take care of it. Because, as long as this crowd is in charge, they won’t.
These bozos are calling out the National Guard, pepper-spraying innocent demonstrators standing between them and a church, lying about how constitutionally protected assemblies are illegal insurrections, saying nothing about the officers who continue to club and manhandle and knock over protesters and passers-by even though they know it’s being recorded.
We know what is wrong. We know the people at the top of our government aren’t going to fix it.
So, when the president says he has done more for black Americans than any other president since Abraham Lincoln, or when he says the murdered George Floyd is looking down and smiling, he might be right.
Just not in the way he imagines.
George Pyle is still the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.