Hate has always found safe harbor in the U.S. But, while it had moved to the recesses of our public culture following a variety of social movements and subsequent social progress, today we find hate back from the periphery of our civic engagement to a place that is troublingly mainstream and validated by conservative media outlets, as well as Donald J. Trump.
Television news, digital platforms, as well as the undisciplined, irresponsible, inflammatory rhetoric and twitter feed of the president have all played a substantive role in this shift. Why are we still complicit?
Earlier this month, Trump ostensibly condemned racism and white supremacy in the wake of two mass shootings that left more than 30 people dead. His message, read dispassionately from a teleprompter, was undermined by his own racist rhetoric and divisive comments in the past.
“In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” Trump said. “Hate has no place in America.”
The trouble is, hate does now occupy an increasingly large place in the U.S., and our singular voice in times of tragedy - traditionally the president of the United States - has been a catalyst and champion for hate. Trump began his presidential campaign by generalizing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” in an attempt to champion the hate and fear manifested more extremely in a recent spate of mass shootings. This pattern has persisted through this last week, where a variety of public statements issued via tweets and in rallies create a direct line to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton that need to be acknowledged.
In August 2017, after violent clashes with white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one woman dead, Trump blamed the “alt-right” and neo-Nazi groups for the violence, but then equivocated.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” he said during a news conference days after the deadly conflict. “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.”
How soon will he equivocate here? How can citizens reconcile the staggering juxtaposition of his prepared statements Monday set against his political rhetoric on the campaign trail and in office?
Trump’s comments after the shootings came on the heels of two attacks still fresh in the country’s mind: his tweets and subsequent public statements about Baltimore and Rep. Elijah Cummings, and his attacks on a group of four congresswomen of color, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
On July 14, Trump tweeted that the four congresswomen should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Days later, a crowd at a Trump rally in North Carolina chanted “send her back” when Trump talked specifically about Omar. Three of the women were born in the U.S.; Omar came to the U.S. from Somalia when she was a child and is an American citizen. This is patently un-American, unless we want to carve out a larger home in our public sphere for hate and bigotry.
“How do you stop these people? You can’t,” Trump said at a May 2019 rally in Panama City Beach, Florida. When someone in the crowd yelled back, “Shoot them,” Trump joked, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”
It would be unwise for an historian to speculate prematurely regarding the minds, rationale and inspiration behind committing the heinous acts of this past weekend. However, we have seen this before. Cesar Sayoc pleaded guilty in March to a total of 65 felony counts in connection with death threats, 16 counts of using a weapon of mass destruction and illegal mailing of explosives with the intent to kill or injure. Sayoc’s attorney’s argued persuasively that Sayoc was “radicalized” by Trump’s rhetoric. In a sentencing memo filed last month, Sayoc’s attorneys said the 57-year-old former pizza delivery worker became radicalized via a daily consumption of Trump’s tweets, Fox News, and conspiracy theories on the internet. The trouble is all three forces reinforce each other on a seemingly daily basis. Attorneys argued that Sayoc sent the packages because he believed that “prominent Democrats were actively working to hurt him, other Trump supporters, and the country as a whole.”
Perhaps most troubling is the reality that Donald J. Trump himself has been radicalized by the same diet of media consumption. He, too, is a low-information citizen who insulates himself, and his media consumption, to sources that will affirm and validate him and his world view.
While Trump spoke earnestly, for a moment, about gun control he quickly pivoted to the primary tragedy of the week from his perspective, Chinese currency manipulation.
The victims of El Paso and Dayton deserve more. Rather than hopes and prayers alone, we need policy and change.
Michael Durfee is an assistant professor of history and director of the Africana/Black Studies minor program at Niagara University.