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Trump’s Dangerous Game

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On July 14, President Donald Trump employed racist and hate-filled language in a tirade on Twitter, telling four duly elected American Congresswomen to “go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”[1] This meme, a long-time favorite of racists, at once sought to other and dehumanize its targets, all of whom are women of color. It was a patent lie in every respect. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are all United States citizens and three of the four were born in this country. Moreover, none of them hail from especially crime-afflicted places. Following careful deliberation, the editors of The Washington Post and The New York Times and many other news organizations chose to report and describe the comments in headlines and articles as lies that were racist on their face.  For its part, the British newsweekly The Economist, hardly a leftist publication, offered the following summary of Trump’s racism and this specific racist screed and its origins:

The answer was in long before the president sent an especially offensive tweet this week, inviting four unnamed, but by inference non-white, Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from. It was settled before he refused to condemn the white supremacists of Charlottesville two years ago. The data from his 2016 election have been scrutinised, and the resulting analyses, detailed in books and papers, are in agreement. Political scientists find no clear economic rationale for Mr. Trump’s victory. Rather, they [Trump’s supporters] were unified by nothing so much as antipathy to America’s growing diversity, and an attendant feeling that whites were losing ground. Both were expressed in hostility to immigration, immigrants and welfare spending (which many wrongly believed was being slurped up by migrants).[2]

The Economist then went on to contend that Trump narrowly won the 2016 race on the basis of his appeals to racial fears and to racism:

In their book ‘Identity Crisis,’ John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck describe the rationalisation such Trump supporters made as ‘racialised economics.’ Only a small minority of voters hold old-style racist views on questions like black-white marriage, but a very large number believe that ‘undeserving groups are getting ahead while [my] group is left behind.’ An earlier study by the Voter Study Group found hostility to immigrants to be the best predictor of a Trump voter. One by the Public Religion Research Institute found much the same. There has been no serious counter-argument. Mr. Trump’s race card was the winning one.[3]

Trump has since continued to attack the four Democratic Congresswomen, even going so far as to revive the much reviled, “Love It or Leave It” sloganeering of the reactionary right of the 1960s (and earlier) in his various outbursts.[4] In short, Trump has apparently concluded that racially divisive rhetoric and overt racism constitute his best path to mobilizing the necessary number of voters to win Electoral College reelection in 2020. He has continued doggedly to pursue that strategy while persistently lying about the views and origins of the individuals he has attacked, and while claiming that “True Americans” would not disagree with his brutish, uninformed and othering stances.[5] He routinely signals to his supporters that those who offer perspectives critical of his view of the world are to be considered “others,” “Un-American” and beneath enjoying standing as citizens. Meanwhile, he may say virtually anything he likes, including lying about those he attacks, embracing tyrants of all stripes and enjoying untrammeled freedom of speech as he does so. That is, in Trump’s view and in the eyes of many of his supporters, any who dare disagree with whatever he suggests must be stripped of their legitimacy to do so. On the Tuesday following his original tweet, the President tested this proposition by resuming his diatribe against the four Congresswomen at a political rally in Greenville, North Carolina. He was rewarded when the crowd erupted in the chant, “Send her back,” referring specifically to Congresswoman Omar.[6] This was tyrannical rant at its most ugly and vicious, and it reflected simplistic hatred and despicable stereotyping deliberately invoked by the President of the United States for electoral purposes. Eerily, those shouting appeared visibly to revel in the hate they espoused. Notably, Trump paused and allowed the moment to continue for more than 12 seconds without seeking to end it or to caution his supporters about the implications of their behavior. When he began speaking again as the crowd died down, he continued his attack on the four Congresswomen.

This scenario raises at least three broad concerns for continued consideration by devotees of democratic self-governance. First, this episode illustrates a broader point about Trump’s rhetoric: It is consistently totalizing and dehumanizing of his perceived opponents. Critics are not permitted to disagree as fellow citizens and leaders with differing views. Instead, Trump routinely, and typically mendaciously, belittles and “others” them for their temerity to adopt a perspective other than his own. In consequence, the four Congresswomen are not merely political opponents in Trumpian terms, but contemptible scourges who should not be considered citizens, should be regarded and associated with the same fear that one might experience in so-called “crime infested” locations and should be loathed on the basis of their skin color and the difference that fact implies. Interestingly, the President has also sought to suggest this group and many others who might criticize him favor terrorists and communism or socialism. Chillingly, both of these forms of Trump rhetoric are characteristic of fascist and authoritarian regimes and not of liberal democratic leaders or governments.[7] For the record, none of the four leaders he has attacked are communists and none embrace terrorism or terrorists. One need not agree with all of the positions and views of these officials and nonetheless accord them the respect that their humanity and elected office deserve.

Second, Trump’s stance and that of his Party, as he has received almost no criticism from GOP officials for his embrace of overt racism in his recent public speeches and comments, suggest an unalloyed willingness to risk the nation’s dearest principles, including rule of law, citizen equality, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. It also imperils the human and civil rights of would-be asylees, refugees and immigrants as well as wide swathes of the American citizenry via a strategy aimed solely at obtaining and maintaining political power by mobilizing individuals prepared to rationalize the denigration of those principles. Trump has shown himself willing to stoke the racial anxieties and racism of his supporters without regard for the implications of that rhetoric for the polity writ large, including the rights of millions of this nation’s citizens, and for its capacity for governance amidst hostile polarization at all scales. Trump, and increasingly, the political party he now dominates, evidence a moral bankruptcy in which any position and lie or usurpation of citizen rights and social norms can be rationalized in a quest for power. The obvious danger is that democratic self-governance will be diminished or lost in this dangerous game. GOP congressional behavior at the recent Mueller hearings, seeking to link the special counsel to conspiracies and patently absurd positions, suggest just how far many Republican officials are willing to go to legitimize Trump to maintain power.[8]

Finally, as Milan Svolik of Yale University has observed in the current issue of the journal Democracy:

These observations point to an important puzzle about the role of ordinary people in democratic backsliding: Why do voters support politicians who undermine democracy? …  Electoral competition often confronts voters with a choice between two valid but potentially conflicting concerns: democratic principles and partisan interests. … Incumbents such as these understand that most of their supporters would rather tolerate their authoritarian tendencies than back politicians whose platform these supporters abhor. This is because their countries’ acute society-wide political conflicts raise the stakes in elections and, in turn, the price their supporters have to pay for putting democratic principles above partisan interests. … Ordinary people support democracy, but that support is tenuous.[9]

Put differently, deep social divisions can limit or even undermine a citizenry’s capacity to limit the illiberal tendencies of its elected leaders. In an ironic paradoxical twist, however, Trump’s rhetoric, and his party’s ongoing efforts to suppress the civil and voting rights of those its officials fear will not support their nominees at the polls, actually work to highlight, exacerbate and deepen those differences. This fact makes it all the more difficult to imagine that residents willing to absolutize, scapegoat and hate while undermining democratic norms and rights on the basis of difference, or to rationalize doing so in the name of preferred partisan aims, will soon stop screaming vacuous vile chants or slogans at political rallies. One must hope that other elected and social leaders and an overarching majority will emerge to stop this anti-democratic march at the polls. A failure to do so looks set to yield still uglier degradations of this nation’s most important norms and values of human and civil rights and of freedom.

Notes

[1] @RealDonaldTrump. (2019, July 14). ....and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how.... [Twitter post] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1150381395078000643

[2]  Lexington. “The 2020 campaign will be more racially divisive than 2016 was,” The Economist, July 18, 2019, https://www.economist.com/united-states/2019/07/18/the-2020-campaign-will-be-more-racially-divisive-than-2016-was. Accessed July 18, 2019.

[3] The Economist, July 18, 2019.

[4] Goodwin, Liz. “A Painful History of Trump’s ‘Love it or Leave It,’ Argument,” The Boston Globe, July 17, 2019, https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2019/07/17/painful-history-trump-love-leave-argument/IxNJigjzgWlg1HYd2STQHM/story.html Accessed July 17, 2019.

[5] Bump, Philip. “The Toxic Power of Trump’s Politics,” The Washington Post, July 15, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/15/toxic-power-trumps-politics/?utm_term=.02c0325446b7 Accessed July 15, 2019.

[6] Fox 10 Television, Phoenix, Arizona. “Full Rally: President Trump in Greenville, North Carolina,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qvB5tHRNOI Accessed July 25, 2019.

[7] McNeill, John. “How Fascist is Donald Trump? There’s Actually a Formula for That,” The Washington Post, October 21, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/21/how-fascist-is-donald-trump-theres-actually-a-formula-for-that/?utm_term=.24182a3b5c78 Accessed July 23, 2019.

[8] Kristoff, Nicholas. “The Mueller Hearings and the Stench in Washington,” The New York Times, July 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/opinion/mueller-hearings-congress.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_190725?campaign_id=2&instance_id=11094&segment_id=15528&user_id=0100ea161cc78533fc4fac5d8cf3a77c&regi_id=400875340725 Accessed July 24, 2019.

[9] Slovik, Milan. “Polarization versus Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, 30(3), July 2019, pp. 20-32, at 21, 23, 26.  

Publication Date

July 29, 2019

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