I was once part of a teenage shoplifting heist.
During an otherwise boring school outing, I watched my fellow students rob snacks and sodas and trinkets from a roadside store in my native Ireland. They slipped their loot under sweaters and into pockets while the elderly and clueless store owner made small talk with two female students, the appointed decoys.
That summer, 1976, I had been enrolled at a month-long Gaelic-language immersion school. We all lived with local host families, attended morning classes and trudged through the rain to afternoon games and outings.
Back on our school bus, I listened to those kids brag about their robbery. There were lots of nasty nicknames for that elderly store owner.
So all along, my teenage bunk mates, some of those cool kids who I so wanted to join or be? They were really just ageist thugs and petty thieves.
It was a coming-of-age lesson I never wanted to learn: Some folks are much uglier than you assume or they first appear.
Fast forward to this summer, exactly 40 years later, when, as a newly sworn-in U.S. citizen, I must re-learn this lesson--this time about a large swathe of conservative America.
This year, Trump rallies have revealed a country that I never fully suspected, and for which no citizenship test-prep book could have ever prepared me.
For all its flaws and contradictions, I actually believed in America's basic kindness, its Good-Samaritan-styled decency.
Also, we're not the first democratic nation to suffer a rabid, unqualified presidential candidate. We won't be the last. So on June 16, 2015, when Mr. T announced his candidacy, when he promised to build a wall to exclude browner versions of immigrants like me, I assured myself that these rabid, wild-card candidates are just that: rabid and wild.
They're not a true barometer of the country and its broadly shared norms or values.
For that barometer, we can look to that candidate's supporters--especially when those supporters' ranks swell into the double- and triple-digit thousands, especially when their hate speech and violence have been recorded and videotaped for posterity.
Trump rallies have shown us that hordes of otherwise ordinary-seeming Americans--most of whom are Caucasian males--have no shared values or human decency. Sure, this presidential candidate knows how to stoke their xenophobic and misogynistic rage. But he couldn't stoke what wasn't already there.
That summer at language school, I learned a creepy thing about myself: Outnumbered and afraid, I didn't stop the pillage. I didn't alert the shop lady or report the theft to our school chaperones. There was even a moment when I wondered, "Would a stolen Mars bar be my ticket to the cool crowd?"
Now, I listen to gangs of people publicly calling our president the 'n' word. I listen to large hordes of people call our former secretary of state the 'b' word. As they chant that she's a whore and a tramp, as they sport T-shirt slogans that I would never let my young nieces see, I wonder if this is the mob mentality turned wild and vile?
And here's the other thing I wonder, that I really want to know: Until their faces and voices appeared on TV or Facebook videos, did these folks' neighbors or heir kids' teachers ever guess what lived and lurked next door?
Maybe this is not mob mentality gone bad. Maybe these rallies are a 21st-century Woodstock for savages. Stoked by a wanna-be leader, free of admonishments or dissenters, these folks are letting it all hang out.
Whoever we elect in November, she or he will only last (sans impeachment) a maximum of eight years.
However, what we have reluctantly learned about a too-large segment of America--that will last much, much longer than that.