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Friday, August 23, 2019

Looking for dangerous patterns in language

In my National and International Security Policy course this semester, I'm including a session on the threat of white nationalism. This is partly because of several recent prominent acts of racially-motivated violence.

However, I'm also concerned about the American political leaders who might incite such violence -- or stand quietly to the side while their allies incite such violence.

The most extreme kind of racial violence ends in genocide, or some other form of mass atrocity. As a signal of that kind of future violence, students of genocide are particularly concerned when political leaders start equating their political opponents "with animals, vermin, insects or diseases." Scott Straus, who recently won the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, argues that particularly menacing narratives were a central element in genocides that occurred in the countries he studied (primarily in Africa):
Straus tells us that it is ideologies and ideas—or "founding narratives"—and the way these inform the strategies, tactics, and decisions of political leaders that matter more than anything else. Founding narratives are, according to Straus, those mythically framed national ideologies that define who is in and who is out, or who rules and who is ruled—ideologies that establish hierarchies between primary and secondary citizens and juxtapose the 'good,' state-supporting part of the population and the 'evil' part that is blamed for undermining and destroying the state. 
Basically, genocide does not happen in states founded on inclusive, tolerant, pluralist principles. It happens when political leaders convince some parts of their population that other portions are the evil sources of all that is wrong with the country.

Chris Wallace of Fox News has noticed that the current President of the United States keeps making particularly divisive claims about the districts of people of color serving in Congresss. For example, Trump said that Elijah Cummings's district in Maryland is a“disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Trump wrote that “no human being would want to live there.”

In this instance, Trump is one step removed from describing these members of Congress as inhuman. He describes their districts in such terms -- and therefore implicitly says something about the people who live in them.

Moreover, Trump has described some immigrants as animals and "not people." He has described groups of immigrants attempting to migrate to the US as being part of an "invasion" and said that caravans of migrant include "some very bad people." In response he has called for militarization of the southern border and sent US troops there. Trump rarely (if ever?) talks about the violent situations that many (if not most) of these migrants are fleeing -- and the reality that they might well be completely lawful refugees. 

Rather, Trump has joked about where one might be able to get away with shooting immigrants.

Scholars Aliza Luft and Daniel Solomon  argue that dehumanizing language normalizes extreme perspectives,  "alters norms of what is and isn’t perceived as acceptable views or behavior," and "can serve as post-hoc justification" when some people do commit acts of extreme violence.

In terms of extreme political division, Trump has described some media outlets as an "evil propaganda machine for the Democrat Party." He has falsely accused some of his political opponents as describing "evil Jews." He has just this week accused Jewish voters of being "disloyal" when they vote for Democrats. Note: 80% of Jews voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, a voting pattern consistent with their long-time history. In recent political ads, a Trump voice-over says "Liberals care more about illegal immigrants than they do about our own citizens. It’s time to put America first. We need border security.”

Trump has a long history of characterizing his political foes as "evil" or "sick" or "bad people."

Trump is not the first America politician to demonize his political opponents. After all, Newt Gingrich's political action committee circulated a memo calling on fellow Republicans to escalate their rhetoric a generation ago:
He [Gingrich] established a political action committee called GOPAC to help Republican candidates across the country become more effective campaigners. And in 1990, the group distributed to GOP contenders a pamphlet called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” which encouraged the candidates to “speak like Newt”—that is, to rely upon sharp and divisive rhetoric. It presented a list of 30 “optimistic positive” words to use, including “freedom,” “truth,” and “family.” It also provided a list of “contrasting” words: “crisis,” “decay,” and “red tape.” And this second list recommended going to extremes. Republican candidates, it noted, should call Democrats “shallow,” “radical,” “incompetent,” “pathetic,” “sick,” “bizarre,” and “traitors.” Gingrich’s group was urging GOPers to engage in all-out rhetorical war, going beyond arguing over policies to engaging in the politics of personal destruction.
GOP campaign strategist Frank Luntz has strongly criticized this form of politics:
“It’s the most destructive political memo written in modern politics. All it did was teach hate and division…It’s a precursor of what’s going on today.” (Though Luntz has previously been associated with this memo, he says he was not working for Gingrich when it was drafted and that it was composed by a longtime Gingrich aide named Joe Gaylord. Gaylord did not respond to a request for comment.) “That memo,” Luntz says, “is as cynical and evil as anything that’s been written in American politics.”
Luntz today does not embrace Trump's rhetoric -- and worries where it might be taking the country:
So what does Luntz, who has been a GOP strategist for much of this time, think of Trump’s demagogic breakout? (Luntz, who was at odds with Trump during the 2016 campaign, has reportedly been advising the White House since his old friend Mick Mulvaney became Trump’s chief of staff.) “I don’t want to go there,” he says. “I’m not answering this for anyone. I don’t want to comment. It’s not what I would do. It’s not what I would say.” And Luntz, who blames “both sides” for the toxic political environment, continues: “But I will tell you this. I’m afraid for the country. I do not think we know how low we can goI know what the outcome is. It’s bad. It’s France in 1793. It ends up consuming everything.”
That 1793 reference is to France's infamous "reign of terror," when Maximilien Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety accused political opponents of treason -- and had them executed. This violence became part of a larger political revolution and bloody civil war.

More extreme concerns about political violence aside, Trump's behavior is also of concern to scholars who study democratic backsliding to authoritarianism. 

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