Those gems all came from the current American President. And many of these quotes occurred before 63 million Americans decided he was the best possible choice to become President.
Donald Trump has explicitly encouraged and condoned violence by and from his supporters. This is indisputable. Sarah Sanders can deny it all she wants, but in this age of instant communication and 24 hour news – there’s video footage of pretty much every moment where Trump exhorts others to commit violence against his political opponents. He also sometimes expresses an urge to commit said violence himself. Regarding that part, it’s fair to note that his reaction to the rare moments he’s faced a physical threat have been, we’ll say… less-than-valiant, casting some doubt on his professed bravado.
The President doesn’t like it when he’s asked to take responsibility for his words. He recently complained that President Obama wasn’t blamed for causing the church shooting in Charleston. Never mind the obvious point that the Charleston shooting was an attack on African Americans by a white supremacist – which is unlikely to be something done by a supporter of the first black American President. Also never mind the next most obvious point that Barack Obama never encouraged his supporters to commit acts of violence. The real problem is that Trump doesn’t seem to connect the dots between his rhetoric and the crimes committed in the name of his lies and conspiracies. With his complaint that Obama wasn’t asked the same questions, he makes it appear that he thinks this is just about political points and not about the effect words can have.
Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand the power of his position, or comprehend that when one is President, words mean more than just entertainment for adoring crowds. One can be irresponsible with speech. Trump clearly doesn’t get this.
When he tells his supporters he’ll help them if they assault a protester – then he assumes a degree of responsibility if they carry out that act. In the emotional and hyperbolic world of politics, words can be far more powerful than mere rhetoric. They can inspire, they can dismay, they can delight, they can terrify. And they can incite.
But it’s more complicated than that. A president’s words can also cultivate attitudes. They don’t have to be directives in order to inspire action. And they certainly don’t have to be truthful to convince.
When President Obama stood in front of a crowd and really got going – he could stir emotions. Yeah, he might piss off a detractor or two, but when he was on – the man could lift up the hearts of those who listened. He conveyed a sense of optimism and belonging that meant a great deal to many people. He understood the power of words – and largely used it for good.
It’s hard to say if Trump really grasps the power of his words – but he has to know that he has the ability to motivate a crowd. He just doesn’t seem to comprehend the consequences.
Where Obama sought to raise people up – Trump gleefully brings them down. He taunts. He teases. He lies. He mocks. He frequently lapses into incoherence.
And even when he isn’t directly telling people to hurt others, he’s telling them who they should hate and fear.
Possibly more insidious than the literal incitement is the indirect stuff – the rhetoric he uses to anger his supporters. He lies incessantly, but to the true believers, the fact checkers are the real liars.
Instead, he says members of the Democratic Party are treasonous and un-American.
He tells his supporters that the “Democrat Party” is an actual threat to the nation; “They are not just extreme, they are frankly dangerous, and they are crazy.”
He claims the Democratic Party is “the party of crime,” and is “anti-police.”
In one particular speech in Iowa, Trump described the opposition party as “unhinged,” “an angry mob,” “wacko,” “too extreme,” and “too dangerous to govern.” He also claimed the party would destroy individual businesses, coddle violent gangs, and throw the nation into chaos.
It’s not just his political opposition. He says the mainstream media is the “enemy of the people.” This seems to be a response to journalists doing their jobs, and holding him accountable for his words and actions. He even used that particular phrase just days after CNN offices suffered an attempted letter bomb attack. He blamed the media for violence committed against them.
It’s quite possible Trump doesn’t understand what he’s saying. It’s possible that he doesn’t realize how serious accusations of treason and insanity really are. It’s also possible he knows perfectly well that accusing his mainstream partners in governance of attempting to literally destroy the nation they’ve been tasked with running has major ramifications. He obviously understands that his supporters take this stuff to heart. Whether he thinks it actually leads to violence is less certain. But he knows this creates anger and fear. And that’s exactly what has fueled his entire political career.
But wait, there’s more!
He’s not just telling Americans that the largest mainstream political party in the United States is made up of a bunch of psychotic radicals bent on destroying the American dream.
He’s also telling Americans that outsiders from other countries are ready to invade the States, rape, steal, spread disease, and murder innocent Americans. He started his presidential run telling voters that people from Mexico who enter the US are rapists bringing drugs and crime. He talked about what a drain immigrants are on the economy. And he’s only continued from there. He has a habit of punching down, demonizing those who are in the most distress and who need the most help.
So when a “caravan” of refugees from Central America were slowly making their way up the length of Mexico on foot, desperately hoping to reach the American border so they could (legally) request asylum – Trump was all over it.
Never mind the fact that groups like the caravan have made this pilgrimage many times over the years, including during Trump’s watch. And never mind the well-established statistics that show immigrants (irrespective of documentation status) commit fewer crimes than their native-born counterparts and tend to pay more in taxes than they receive in services.
What’s important is that Trump was telling us this ragtag group of maybe three or four thousand impoverished, malnourished refugees fleeing oppression was a dangerous swarm intent on crashing through American borders and changing our way of life.
“I would like to provide an update to the American people regarding the crisis on our southern border and crisis it is. People are rushing our border.”
Well, no. No, they weren’t. This specific group was more than a month away at the soonest (when he was yelling the loudest), and it was estimated that only around 20% were even going to make it to the border. And when some of them did eventually arrive, it was at a legal entry point, and they ended up being attacked from the American side.
Guess what, though?
Telling Americans they’re under threat of invasion – even when this is easily debunked – works. It seriously works to inspire dangerous and emotional responses. As of the midterm election week, several hundred civilian vigilantes acting like a quasi-militia were making their way to the border. In their eyes, they were a private border patrol. Local landowners generally don’t care for them. The real Border Patrol usually considers them a nuisance at best and harmful at worst.
But they were acting on what they considered to be a call to arms from Donald Trump. And yeah, they were most definitely armed. Who knows what would have happened if the caravan had arrived at the same place these groups were congregating. Adding armed, mostly-untrained, and unregulated civilians to the situation is pretty much never a recipe for a positive outcome. Remember the Minutemen of the Bush era? While they eventually fizzled out, there was plenty of violence and abuse from that militia group, including a couple murders. There’s little reason to think this would end up being any better.
Words often lead to actions. Emotional words designed to terrify often lead to terrified actions. Which means violence. As mentioned above, it doesn’t have to be a directive in order to inspire violence. Sometimes the words just need to help fan the flames of fear.
As Trump rants about the incoming invasion, his administration’s propaganda arm, FOX News (and assorted right-wing media such as Breitbart) repeats and amplifies his claims. Other people with prominent voices repeat this bullshit. Television, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, AM radio – the game of hysterical telephone continues and grows. And some people decide the situation is dire enough that they need to act.
Cesar Sayoc, a rabid Trump supporter, rage-filled conspiracy-theory believer, and small-time grifter, sent at least 16 pipe bombs through the mail at Democratic politicians and liberal political figures. No fatalities occurred, and he was caught fairly easily. He’s currently being indicted on 30 counts – which will likely put him in prison for the rest of his life. And his actions were inspired by the kind of conspiracy theories people like Trump have peddled for years. He appeared to have been a massive fan of Trump and his policies. Trump himself seemed either unwilling, or unable to acknowledge his part in this.
Robert Bowers killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. His motive appeared to be a mixture of general anti-Semitism and more specific anger at Jewish support for refugees. He blamed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for assisting the migrant caravan, or as he saw them, “invaders” sent to “kill our people.” Bowers himself was not a fan of Trump because he believed Trump was too moderate, and was “a globalist.” But the kind of fear mongering that Trump both encouraged and partook in certainly affected Bowers and his worldview. He believed he was committing this act of terrorism to save what he saw as “his people.”
Gregory Bush attempted to gain access to a black church in Kentucky. When he failed to do that, he walked into a nearby Kroger grocery store, and shot and killed two black people. He intentionally didn’t fire on an armed white person who confronted him, telling the man, “whites don’t kill whites.” He appeared to hold right wing political views and at least some degree of racism. The Justice Department agreed that his crime was motivated by racial hatred, and charged him with hate crimes alongside his other charges.
Three men were caught attempting to bomb an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, where a large number of Somali immigrants lived. Their motivation was primarily based around an extreme Islamophobia, and they wished for Muslims to be completely removed and barred from the United States. During their trial, their lawyer explicitly blamed Trump’s rhetoric as the final impetus behind their attempted actions.
Of course, not every violent incident can be directly tied to fear-mongering rhetoric from Trump or from his enablers. And plenty of violence – including right-wing inspired violence – occurred well before Donald Trump became President.
But that doesn’t mean what he says is helping. In fact, right-wing violence has gotten noticeably worse.
The FBI reported that hate crimes increased 17% in 2017, with a particularly large jump of 37% against Jewish people, and an increase of 24% against Latinos. It should be noted that the FBI’s analysis of hate crimes likely underreports the total number of such crimes, and the true number could be far higher.
It’s also been reported that the “safe spaces” of college campuses have been anything but for Jewish students, as blatantly anti-Semitic harassment has shot up at colleges around the country.
And breakdowns of domestic terrorism have shown that right-wing-motivated terror made up two-thirds of the total incidents in the US in 2017. Much of the long-term analysis has shown right-wing terror to have picked up in response to the Obama presidency, but it has apparently accelerated under Trump.
And of course, without specific confessions or manifestos from perpetrators, it’s not possible to entirely link Donald Trump’s exhortations of violence to individual acts. Not all of them, anyway.
But we can say the circumstantial evidence is strong that Trump’s words and actions have encouraged an uptick in political violence. And the constant repetition of his positions from his supporters in the media and in government make things worse. Right wing politicians and media figures spent weeks telling their supporters that Central American refugees were a legitimate threat to their safety. And in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers treated these claims seriously – in particular feeding off the constant anti-Semitic dog whistling that accompanied much of the doomsaying.
Just a decade and a half ago, the claims that immigrants and refugees represented a threat to national security, health, and safety were mostly relegated to the confines of the extreme right, especially online. Websites like Stormfront and Infowars peddled this hateful nonsense. The strongly conservative Republican president of that time went out of his way to utilize inclusive rhetoric when discussing immigration. He scolded those who capitalized on anti-Islamic bigotry in the wake of 9/11. It’s true that his policies didn’t always match his lofty phrasing – but George W Bush did put some effort into discouraging anger and violence.
Times changed quickly.
A significant percentage of Republican politicians now run explicitly bigoted and xenophobic campaigns. And while their success has been mixed, the success of Trump has emboldened the bigots. Expect to see more of the same in 2020.
As the nation evolves, so does the backlash. Americans are increasingly aware of the history of racism and bigotry that helped shape the US, and many are aware of how lingering attitudes and systemic bias continues to negatively affect non-whites, LGBTQ citizens, and women. But the realization has also hit those who aren’t ready or willing to evolve. Plenty of people are uncomfortable with change, and feel defensive about losing status as the default ethnicity/gender/orientation. And when those people find themselves with a spokesperson in the White House, they find what might be the ultimate validation.
It’s not just Trump. The Republican Party largely backs him up. When Trump throws around George Soros conspiracy theories, major figures within the party echo him. People like Kevin McCarthy and Ron DeSantis jumped on that bandwagon, and managed to ride it to victory. And his most vocal critics in the party are officially retiring, giving Trump a tighter hold on the GOP, and even less accountability than before the 2018 election.
Lies and fear-mongering aren’t new to American politics. And while politically-inspired violence has been relatively rare – it isn’t new, either. But there has been a change. Leaders on the national level are choosing their words less carefully. We have a president who threatens to jail political opponents, and directly encourages his supporters to act violently. And when violence does occur, he blames the victims.
And it’s not getting better. He recently bullied the news networks into airing an Oval Office address where he – once again – lied to the American public about the dangers of undocumented immigrants moving across the US-Mexico border. He’s still stoking fear, because it’s the only tactic he knows. Lying about immigrants is how he started his campaign for president, and he’ll probably be doing it on his last day in office.
The Democratic Party has recently won back control of the House of Representatives. The President is barely capable of doing anything competently. And the Democrats have several potential candidates who could defeat Trump in 2020, if Robert Mueller doesn’t help push him out sooner. Hope isn’t lost. But there’s still anger in the air. And people are susceptible to acting irrationally when angry. I would hope the better angels of our nature prevail, and we resist giving into our fears. And maybe, on a nation-wide scale, that hope might be eventually justified. But it only takes one person, or a few, to make things catastrophically worse for everyone. We can’t allow our leaders and representatives to encourage them.