It has been almost eight months since Donald Trump took office. If the rest of his term looks like these first months, we may have dodged a bullet. Rather than the authoritarian we feared, we would end up with a buffoon who almost reflexively self-destructs. In spite of having both houses of Congress, he and his party have repeatedly failed in their major legislative initiatives, and he has even had trouble making his executive orders stick. Nevertheless his rhetoric remains extremely dangerous for American politics. Even if he continues to fail at establishing any policy, his rhetoric alone sows the seeds for future humanitarian catastrophes.
It seems almost a waste of effort to take the time to establish just how toxic Trump’s rhetoric is. But because we often exaggerate how bad our opponents’ rhetoric is in general, it’s difficult to establish just how bad Trump’s is in particular. So let us remember that at the start of his candidacy two years ago, he called Mexican immigrants rapists. What might have been a stray, isolated comment from some other candidate has proven to be typical of Trump. A recent statement is hard to do justice to without quoting in full:
The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people, these beautiful, beautiful innocent young people, will find no safe haven anywhere in our country. And you’ve seen some of these stories about some of these animals.
They don’t want to use guns because it’s too fast and it’s not painful enough. So they’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long.
He concludes by promising to crack down on sanctuary cities. From start to finish, the entire story, the “young, beautiful girl” to be ravaged, tortured, and murdered, and the “predators and criminal aliens” who were doing it, all of it was fictional.
Beyond Mexicans and immigrants in general, Trump puts old “tough on crime”-type euphemisms for strongarm tactics to shame, openly displaying his contempt for due process and rule of law. His “joke” about bashing suspects’ heads in – met with applause by his audience of police – is just the latest in a lifelong pattern of such statements. And speaking of lifelong patterns, need we go into the disgusting way he has of talking about women? I could go on, but I think the general point is well established – Trump’s rhetoric is bluntly racist, sexist, and authoritarian.
There are a number of people I have talked to or read who are no friends of Trump but think concerns about him are overblown. Typically the argument is that he’s all talk, and that in substance he isn’t much worse than a typical President. These are mostly libertarians, but also some leftists who supported Bernie over Hillary – in short, when they say “not much worse than usual,” it isn’t because they think the usual case is good.
This drastically underestimates the power of rhetoric. Closer to the truth are those who argue that Trump has singlehandedly moved the Overton window, the range of things that can be said and supported in public without committing political suicide. That window now includes all of the egregious statements just mentioned above and many more besides.
But Trump did not accomplish this alone, of course. Trump voters, and especially those who voted particularly for him rather than those who simply vote for whomever the Republican Party nominates, provided him with the support he needed to make it happen.
Why does this matter? Consider a relatively good scenario, in which Trump fails to enact any significant policy over four years, and then loses in 2020. American politics have changed nevertheless. Rather than being political suicide to tar a minority group as rapists, Trump has proven there is a niche for it. An enduring set of wonks and officials who campaign and pursue policy on that basis is only one of the possible bad results of this change.
Consider what might happen if there were another terrorist attack, or a Pearl Harbor-type attack by another nation. It’s hard to know whether to have a greater fear of Trump’s incompetence in facing such events, or what he might do if he managed any sort of coherent response to them. But in the political environment he’s helping to create, he’s not the only one who might get away with something terrible in such circumstances. People in Congress or in state and local governments will feel emboldened as well.
There are limits to what can be secured through good rhetoric alone. Mass incarceration and the Iraq War happened during moments that had quite good rhetoric on the moral worth of non-white groups. I don’t want to minimize those or other terrible things that have occurred in a relatively benign Overton window. But imagine how much worse it could have been if the unprecedented crime wave of the early 90s occurred under a Trump or someone emboldened to use similar rhetoric. This isn’t just a hypothetical; the Japanese internment, Chinese Exclusion Act, and Jim Crow occurred in a background where there was wide acceptance about the inferiority or danger of the targeted minority groups. Trump’s electoral victory and the rhetoric he continues to deploy puts us on the road to making such things politically possible again. The sooner the supporters of that rhetoric can face decisive defeat at the ballot box, the better.
Featured image taken by Michael Vadon