Nooses, Swastikas, and Words Matter

Pro-Trump graffiti of a swastika

Pro-Trump graffiti of a swastika
A noose was found hanging at a Boeing factory in North Charleston. A New York City youth was arrested for drawing Nazi swastikas on the school playground. A White Nationalist Coast Guardsman was arrested just before he was able to carry out a mass terrorist attack, and another White Nationalist murdered 49 Islamic worshippers inside a New Zealand mosque. All this, and we’re not even three months into 2019. And, if a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center is any indication, the next nine months could be just as bad.

Last month the SPLC issued its annual “Year in Hate and Extremism” report, in which the number of hate groups in the United States (now estimated at 1,020) is said to be at a 20-year high. Heidi Beirich, director of the civil rights organization, blames the sharp rise on divisive, hate-filled rhetoric and policies from Donald Trump. In a statement released to the media, Beirich said, “The numbers tell a striking story – that this president is not simply a polarizing figure, but a radicalizing one.”

But where does polarizing end and radicalizing begin? On the campaign trail Trump suggested that NRA members with guns could take care of Hillary. He also referred to Mexicans as murderers and rapists. Later, as president, he sought to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, and told his supporters that “Islam hates us.” And, just two days before the New Zealand massacre, Trump told Breitbart News that liberals who disagree with his political agenda better watch out. Said Trump, “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they [liberals] go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

Let’s be clear. Donald Trump has never told anyone to draw swastikas or hang nooses, nor has he ordered anyone to go out and massacre a church full of innocent people. On the other hand, if Beirich’s conclusion is accurate, then the President bears some responsibility when unstable individuals heed his words, and then act upon them. For example, in his nearly 80-page manifesto, Brenton Tarrant, the man charged with the New Zealand massacre, cited Trump’s rhetoric as an inspiration for his attack on Muslims. Still, after news of the attack reached Mr. Trump, he denied that White Nationalism is a rising threat. “I think it’s a small group of people who have very serious problems,” said the President. First, White Nationalists are not a small group of people, and second, if you think they have problems, then why throw fuel on the fire with hateful tweets and speeches? Why not allocate government resources to prevent and combat the growing threat of terrorism by White Nationalists? Why defend some of the Nazis at Charlottesville as “fine people?” The answers to those questions may lead us to conclude that Trump is a racist, but more probably he is just afraid of losing his mostly white base.

In the musical South Pacific, there is a song whose lyrics include a possible explanation for how someone comes to identify as a White Nationalist.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.

You’ve got to be taught from year to year.

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

The implication is that children learn to hate from their parents, but as those children grow older, they can also learn to hate from the words of influential public figures.

During the 2008 presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, private citizen Trump kept claiming that Obama was born in Kenya. Later, a woman who had bought into Trump’s racist rhetoric stood up at a McCain town hall, and said, “I can’t trust Obama. […] He’s an Arab.” McCain could have nodded or smiled in tacit agreement. He could have worked the crowd up into a frenzied chant of “Send him back! Send him back!” Instead, McCain took the microphone from the woman and said, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with.”

That’s how a real leader is supposed to sound. That’s how a real leader uses words to stand up to his base in order to defuse and denounce hate speech. That’s how a real leader inspires us to do our best, instead of inspiring others to do their worst.


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