War of Words: How Rhetoric Can Turn Ugly
A look into what history can teach our leaders about their tone.
November 12, 2018
Benito Mussolini, the infamous Italian fascist, once said of his country’s press, “Italian journalism is free because it serves one cause and one purpose, mine.” He was shot to death in April 1945. His body was beaten, abused and hung on meat hooks in Milan’s public square by a resentful mob of citizens. More recently, Brazil’s newly elected President, Jair Bolsonaro, described the influx of immigrants in the country as, “The scum of the earth is showing up in Brazil, as if we didn’t have enough problems of our own to sort out.” He had a knife driven five inches into his side by a radical left-wing opponent at a Sept. 6 campaign rally.
Citing these extreme cases demonstrates how the political system in a country can devolve into a more radical and even violent state. These are but two examples of a simple political logic: strong-arm tactics and hateful rhetoric will produce a response from not only from those who are abused and slandered, but also from the public opposition as a whole. American political leaders today must realize that the same action-reaction pattern affects them: when they target certain groups with hateful speech or discriminatory policies, those groups will understandably take action to defend their liberty. History has shown that resistance will often increase proportionally to the oppression, and therefore, our country’s politicians cannot allow the current language of falsehoods and hateful rhetoric to grow unchecked.
This is not a strictly partisan concern either. Prominent Democratic leader and former Attorney General Eric Holder has said of Republicans, “When they go low, we kick them.” Yet the obvious and primary promoter of this heated discourse has been the president. Although the purpose of comparing the rhetoric of Mussolini and Bolsonaro with that of our president is not to suggest that Trump or Bolsonaro rise to the level of a dictator like Mussolini, nor to encourage any form of retaliation to Trump similar to that faced by either of these men, there are similarities which must be acknowledged. The Washington Post reports that President Trump made 1,419 false claims in the seven weeks before these past crucial midterms — one of which was accusing George Soros, a liberal billionaire and Holocaust survivor, of funding the migrant caravan. And Trump, with great vitriol, also repeatedly calls the press the enemy of the people.
As Trump’s incendiary tone increases in the U.S., we have also seen a rise in violent acts by individuals. A 2018 study by Scientific American found a statistically significant correlation between Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tweeting habits and the national rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. Just in the past few weeks, pipe bombs were dispersed, supposedly by Trump fanatic Cesar Sayoc of Flordia, to prominent Democrats, including two former presidents, an event that preceded the horrific slaughter of 11 Jews in their place of worship by a deranged and prejudiced murderer, Robert Bowers. These crimes, to use an often-repeated news phrase, belong solely to the perpetrators of them, but one cannot deny that their motivations matter. Sayoc was an avid Trump supporter and many of his actual targets lined up with the President’s favorite verbal ones. Though Bowers — according to CNN — believed that “Trump was surrounded by too many Jewish people,” he also wholly believed the current portrayal of the migrant caravan as an invasion, another one of President Trump’s recent rallying cries.
In the face of this hate and bigotry, the United States has every right to expect our leaders to prioritize healing the egregious wounds that polarizing language, and the radicalization of both major political parties, have ripped open. Yet sadly, even after the multiple tragedies cited above, our president has chosen to continue to level vitriolic attacks at individual Democrats, such as claiming that Maxine Waters has a low IQ. Further, he has disregarded any calls to cease the demonization of the Latin American migrants. It must be acknowledged that the administration did condemn each of these acts after they happened, but to quote kindergarten teachers everywhere, “Actions speak louder than words,” and President Trump’s actions scream that all those not in his party, in his select base, fail to reach the standard of true Americans.
I opened this piece quoting two men — an infamously divisive fascist dictator and an alienating new president yet to be judged by history, both victims of extreme forms of political violence. Both gambled that they could rise to power by belittling and repressing others without consequence and both lost. So when President Trump calls to “lock her up,” to “build that wall” or refers to journalists as, “lying, disgusting people,” he plays a dangerous game, and we have only to look backwards to see how it can end.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 12 print edition.
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Email Evan Vehslage at [email protected]