Radicalizing Rhetoric

Trump's words matter.

To be honest, part of the following exercise feels pointless.  Those who are likely to agree with me are going to simply nod their heads and move on.  Those who don’t will rationalize away the whole thing.  Still, as I have attempted to figure out what I want to say about the violent events of this week, the following seems worth saying nonetheless.  On the one hand, I do not directly blame Donald Trump for the actions of Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers in the sense that those who engage in an act are responsible for said act.  However, I do think he and his political allies bears significant responsibility for creating an environment in which such people thrive.  Moreover, I find his response to these events to be underwhelming (if not disgraceful) and not presidential.  His responses have ranged from canned rhetoric, to basically a shrug, to doubling-down on the kind of rhetoric and behavior that fosters the negative political climate in which we currently live.

I was already rather disturbed by Trump’s behavior earlier in the week given that he was engaging in rather blatant lying about a number of issues (for example) while holding rallies that were using xenophobia as a political tool (e.g., assertions that the caravan is tantamount to an invasion and that there are unknown Middle Easterners among them).

Further, it is incontrovertibly true that Trump has used violent rhetoric in a way that is unprecedented (indeed, unpresidented, if I can appropriate a certain typo).  Here are just some examples:

  • “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing. I have a lot of fans, and they were not happy about it. And this was a very obnoxious guy who was a trouble-maker who was looking to make trouble.” From an interview on the Sunday edition of Fox and Friends on November 22, 2015 speaking about a black protester at a campaign event in Birmingham, AL. (video here).
  • “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” Speaking to a campaign rally on February 1, 2016.
  • “I’d like to punch him in the face” and “In the old days [protesters would be] carried out on stretchers.” At a campaign event, February 22, 2016.
  • “You know, part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?” At a campaign rally to the crowd on March 11, 2016.  (roughly 7:30 mark of the video).
  • “The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little more of.”  March of 2016 in response to a black protest being sucker-punched by a supporter as he was being escorted out of a campaign event.
  • “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.” On the campaign trail, August 9, 2016.
  • “Even on positive news, really positive news like that, they were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said treasonous. I mean, yeah, I guess, why not. Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”-February 5, 2018 describing Democratic response this SOTU speech.
  • “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy.” Speaking at a campaign rally referencing Greg Gianforte’s body-slamming of a reporter (October 18, 2018).

We need to add in the countless references to the press as “the enemy of the people” and the recent move to call Democrats part of a “mob.”

I could spend all day making this list (if you want more from the campaign, including video, go here and here.  Also see here and here).

This kind of stuff is constantly dismissed as jokes or hyperbole. No, this is a candidate for president, and later a POTUS, directly promoting violence as part of his political communication to the populace.

Additionally, I would note the following posts from here at OTB:

What is noteworthy in each (all written around the Charlottesville march) is who was getting support and solace from Trump’s words and actions.  That list included David Duke and Richard Spencer.  To paraphrase Andrew Gillum:  Trump may not be a white nationalist, but the white nationals sure think he is.  I would note that white nationalists have a history of political violence.

All of this (and more) have clearly and unequivocally contribute to a political atmosphere that would encourage men like Cesar Sayoc  and Rober Bowers (there is a whole other post that could be done on the attacks on Soros and “globalists” that have clear anti-Semitic connotations).

This is the President of the United States we are talking about here.  The human being with the largest megaphone in the United States, if not the world.  He has turned the bully pulpit into a literal tool of bullying.  He needs to be reigned in by his own party, but that is unlikely to happen (critiques from outside the party are seen as nothing more than partisanship).  His supporters need to recognize what they are supporting (in many cases, I think, sadly, that they do).  This isn’t tax cuts and anti-abortion judges.  This is ratifying violence as a political tool and encouraging, directly and indirectly, white nationalism.

We all need to see that rhetoric like above is of the same genre as the radical Mullah who preaches death to America and Israel.  Some (most?) who hear the sermon will consider such calls as nothing more than harsh metaphor, but some are radicalized by the language and strap on bombs or deploy bullets.  It can be radicalizing.  The truly horrifying part is that Trump’s radicalizing rhetoric is aimed at fellow citizens.  This is especially true given the way so many people get their “news” and “information” these days.  Trump calls CNN “fake news” and lumps them in as “enemies of the people” (he even tweeted violent images on this count).  Sayoc delivers a bomb to CNN.  This is not some mere coincidence.

If one’s response is “but, Antifa” or “but, the left says violent things, too,” let me answer as follows.  First, I agree that no one should be calling for, or perpetrating, violence.  I condemn that approach to politics.  Second, there is no analog to Trump on the left at the moment (or ever, that I can think of, in US politics).  There is no leader of the Democratic Party making statements like the list above.   This is not a time for simplistic bothsiderism.  Yes, the overall discourse is coarse, and has been for some time.  Yes, the siloing of news and opinion into agreeable bubbles has deleterious effects on our ability to have a shared reality.  But no political figure at the moment (or, really, in recent memory) has encouraged a politics of violence and division like Donald Trump has, and certainly not with the scope of influence that he has.

He is not, as I state above, personally and directly responsible for these actions.  But he is creating an atmosphere that encourages them.  That is a failure of presidential leadership.  And, worse, he really doesn’t seem to care.  And even worse, a lot of his supporters appear to on board.  And if one is still a supporter, what is the motivation?  Are more tax cuts worth a president that speaks like this?   More judges worth this division?

As head of state Trump has a responsibility to try to deal with the current crisis we are facing.  He has a responsibility to act as the leader of all the country.  Instead, he shirks that responsibility.  Indeed, he clearly thinks it is worth only lip service.

Meanwhile, as he talks about being a nationalist and rails against globalists, the atmosphere for more division, radicalization, and violence is furthered.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    He is not, as I state above, personally and directly responsible for these actions. But he is creating an atmosphere that encourages them.


    Stochastic terrorism:

    The use of mass, public communication, usually against a particular individual or group, which incites or inspires acts of terrorism which are statistically probable but happen seemingly at random.

    2017, Clayton Delery, Out for Queer Blood:

    All of this fits with what the anonymous blogger G2G had to say in his expanded definition of stochastic terrorism: “you heat up the waters and stir the pot, knowing full well that sooner or later a lone wolf will pop up and do the deed. The fact that it will happen is as predictable as the fact that a heated pot of water will eventually boil. But the exact time and place of each incident will remain as random as the appearance of the first bubbles in the boiling pot.”

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    He is not, as I state above, personally and directly responsible for these actions.

    If you yell fire in a crowded theater are you responsible for the trampling that results? Yes.

    Are the individuals who panic also responsible? Yes.

    Trump is responsible for validating racist groups. He’s responsible for the targeting of their hate. He is responsible for what they do to the extent that his rhetoric is a precipitating factor. To deny that Trump is responsible for acts of hate very often done explicitly in his name and targeted against his enemies is to absolve Hitler of Kristallnacht or Mao of the Cultural Revolution.

    If I tell you your neighbor is a demon who plans to rape your wife and murder your children, am I responsible for you burning down the neighbor’s house? YES.

    It is absurd to deny that Trump is responsible. Hate-mongers are responsible for the actions of those they incite.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    Trump may not be a white nationalist, but the white nationals sure think he is. I would note that white nationalists have a history of political violence.

    And, as white nationalists have come under increasing condemnation, Trump has begun referring to himself as a nationalist (minus the white).

    He is intentionally blurring the lines for the white nationalists, and he knows what he is doing.

    Is he a white nationalist, or is he just really comfortable with white nationalists, and happy to have them in his administration and to empower them?

    It’s a distinction without a difference.

  4. mattbernius says:

    His supporters need to recognize what they are supporting (in many cases, I think, sadly, that they do).

    At least in terms of his most vocal supporters here, they definitely do. The “tough talk” (and thinly veiled calls to violence against any perceived domestic enemy) are an explicit feature, not a bug. Based on their own posts, that’s what the Republicans have been missing for so long — some who will to “fight”.

    That is a core foundation of MAGA as a political culture. It’s also, without a doubt, a byproduct of MAGA political culture roots in the Conservative Media Complex and all the professional victims as “tough guys” who have made it up for years.

  5. Scott F. says:

    Thank you, Steven, for writing this “pointless exercise” of an OP. It’s actually very important that you did. While I (and I suspect many others like me) find the inciting rhetoric and response demoralizing and exhausting, the intended audience is exhilarated by it all. There is no way this imbalance is accidental. It is the intended effect.

    Trump may not be a white nationalist, but the white nationalists sure think he is.

    If this is true of Trump, it is now also true of the Republican Party that now embraces and protects him. There is no other way to see the current political dyamic.

    The GOP may not be a white nationalist party, but white nationalists think it is their home. This needs to be hung around the neck of every Republican candidate for every office from Senator to county supervisor until someone, anyone, from the Republican Party actually takes action to change it.

    And even worse, a lot of his supporters appear to on board. And if one is still a supporter, what is the motivation? Are more tax cuts worth a president that speaks like this? More judges worth this division?

    Currently in their calculus, the GOP evidently thinks the gains are worth the division. But as you note, the only meaningful change will have to come from within the GOP. So, by God, the rest of us must do what we can to change the calculation.

    Vote straight ticket Democratic Party on November 6th. Convince anyone who will listen to you to do the same.

  6. Mister Bluster says:

    You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist.
    Trump the Chump

    You know what I am?
    I’m a 14th Amendment Citizen of the United States.
    I don’t need to be anything else than that.
    GLB
    Makanda Township, Illinois

  7. David M says:

    “Radicalizing rhetoric” if anything undersells the current situation. The Pittsburg shooter was inspired by a racist hoax, pushed by the President, the GOP and their compliant media–all of who should carry this shame the rest of their lives.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    The Pittsburg shooter was inspired by a racist hoax, pushed by the President, the GOP and their compliant media–all of who should carry this shame the rest of their lives.

    A pity that few, if any, of these people are capable of feeling shame…

  9. de stijl says:

    I saw a political ad today that I found fairly shocking because of the framing.

    There was no narrative or story or appeal to reason. The message was very straightforward.

    “Candidate x is liberal. Candidate x is a liar. Candidate x will raise your taxes.” with “scary” photos and horror movie music.

    Just to be able to employ this shorthand attack was freaky. Obviously, this was a inflame the base-type ad, but still….

  10. Henry II says:

    Will no one ride me of this meddlesome president ??!!?

    1
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  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If one’s response is “but, Antifa” or “but, the left says violent things, too,” let me answer as follows.

    Firstly, Antifa is a very recent and direct response to white nationalists. They confront white nationalists at their marches and demonstrations. If they instigate violence they should be arrested and charged. BUT… They are not going around and shooting random white people in grocery stores.

    2ndly, I ask who on the left is saying violent things? Is their any politician on the left proposing violence? It’s possible there is. It’s also possible it’s just some crazy guy standing on a corner. SO to anyone who is saying DEMs do it too, Name names.

    This is not a time for simplistic bothsiderism.

    Both sides. Take a look at the graph at the top of the post. It’s from the Anti-Defamation League.

    Murders committed by Domestic Extremists (in the past decade)

    Right-Wing Extremists: 74%
    Islamic Extremists: 24%
    Left-Wing Extremists: 2%

    So yeah, both sides.

    10
  12. mattbernius says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    I know, I mean it’s not like anti-Semitic attacks jumped by the highest amount on record in the last year…

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/27/antisemitism-us-rises-anti-defamation-league

  13. Kathy says:

    Has anyone else noticed that when Trump condemns some of his “good people,” he lacks the conviction, certainty, passion and plain interest he shows when demonizing poor migrants, political rivals, and the media?

  14. becca says:

    As that Voltaire guy said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”

    Also, check out Goya’s When Reason Sleeps litho. Spoiler alert- nightmares become possible.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Oh look, apparently everybody is a victim…