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Op-eds

Trump, Trumpism, and the danger of words

  • Milton
“The president is not directly responsible for acts of domestic terrorism, but he should be more careful with his language.” That’s the way the Economist headlined its report on the horrific Pittsburgh killings just more than two weeks ago.
by MILTON SHAIN | Nov 15, 2018

Its statement is probably a little soft on US President Donald Trump, but reasonable nonetheless. Or is it? 

Any cursory observer of United States politics and the Trump phenomenon will know that the temperature of bigotry has spiked since the business tycoon took office in 2017. In less than two years, presidential discourse has plummeted to divisive lows, informed by menacing tweets, ugly comments, and fascist-like rhetoric.

While it is true that a lone-gun lunatic can explode at any time, and does not need a Trump to turn into a killing machine, it is naïve to assume that language is without consequences.

It does not help when the president of the United States refers to neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville as “very fine people”, or fabricates the presence of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) operatives among Latin-American refugees making their way to the southern border of the US. That’s the least of it.

Trump has persistently berated a free media, and defined journalists who disagree with him as traitors - effectively un-American. We have heard it all before.

The Pittsburgh killer, Robert Bowers, may well have snapped without Trump’s populist goading, but it is apparent that he was not immune to the toxic and populist discourse emanating from the White House.

Like parcel bomber Cesar Sayoc, who was arrested for posting pipe bombs to critics of Trump, Bowers inhabited a cyber-like echo chamber of anti-Jewish hate and conspiracy, taking oxygen and solace from the White House tone. The tiny psychopathic sub culture that he belonged to was nurtured by a broth of prejudice that appealed to the crudest of human instincts. 

Simply put, Trump’s language and dangerous buffoonery provides cover for nasties and allows them to come out of the woodwork. They have never had it so good.

As New York Times journalist Bari Weiss told talk-show host Bill Maher, Trump has “inculcated an atmosphere of conspiracy minded thinking”. The floodgates have been opened.

What began with Rush Limbaugh decades ago and morphed into Fox News has now come to maturity in dark corners of the internet. It is scary. Decency has disappeared. In a world of easy connectivity and precise social media, we need to rethink the boundaries of freedom. John Stuart Mill’s case for free speech in his classic On Liberty seems irrelevant as a guide to our times. 

Bowers had an account on the internet site GAB, which has since been taken down. It was riddled with hate. “There is no #MAGA [Make America Great Again] as long as there is a kike infestation,” he wrote only a few days before he discharged his AR-15-style rifle and three Glock 357 handguns in the Pittsburgh synagogue. The target was not random.

On a YouTube video which Bowers posted, mass migration and calls for diversity were condemned and blamed on Jews. A week before the massacre, the Pittsburgh synagogue had held a “refugee Shabbat”. Holocaust denial, too, crept into Bowers’s arsenal of hatred. One of his postings called for the gassing of Jews.

Bowers was a walking time bomb whose fuse might well have been ignited by Trump’s poisonous rhetoric. Under Trump, the Republicans have employed language that builds upon well-worn tropes, known all too well by observers of Jew-hatred.

Who could miss the way in which Republicans targeted Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankfein, and George Soros in the build-up to the mid-term elections?

Trump himself tweeted a message from an anti-Semitic message board showing a Magen David atop a pile of cash. Don’t kid yourself, the man is a bigot. “Blood suckers” and a “global power structure”, including “international banks” are secretly plotting against ordinary Americans, he alleged in one outrageous communication.

The surge of illiberal populism today is not unique to Trump. It has flourished globally in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. For casualties of the crash, distinctions between left and right mattered less than the cleavage between elites and “the people”. Jeremy Corbyn, Jean Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders have all done their best to exploit this populist mood.

Trump is an exemplar. Basing his politics on identity and exclusion, he has defined the so-called real America which he repeatedly tells his followers will be “great again” under his leadership. Trump understands his base and its hatred of Washington and its experts. Like all populists, he claims that he alone represents the people and defines his political opponents as enemies.

Of course, Trump is not an anti-Semite, but he has effectively endorsed bigotry. Anti-Semitic incidents have risen disturbingly since he has occupied the White House. Cause and effect are difficult to prove.

The president of the world’s leading power, however, should be dousing the flames of hatred and division rather than throwing petrol on them. Trump is determined to fight “others” who are “trying to destroy our proud American heritage”.

Unfortunately, the classic “other” has for centuries been the Jew. At least, that is what some of Trump’s followers understand.

Milton Shain is the author of ‘A Perfect Storm. Antisemitism in South Africa 1930 – 1948’ (Jonathan Ball Publishers), which won the Recht Malan Prize for English and Afrikaans non-fiction in 2016.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Colin Jantjies 30 Nov
    I can't agree more with Milton Shain that Donald Trump's reckless words are adding fuel to the rise of Antisemitism. What is surprising is just how much support there is for Trump within the Jewish community. Few of us dispute the fact that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem was the right and proper thing to do. Trump will always be remembered for this. Yet under Trump American society is also experiencing a horrid increase in Antisemitism. The Far-Right and their Neo-Nazi affiliates have been emboldened and subtly encouraged by Trump's racist, black and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Generally the foreign "non-white" element. Of course Jews may argue that they are not "black" and that Ivanka, Trump's daughter is now Jewish. But anti-Semites remain set and staunched in their old bigoted ways. Jews will always be "the other" as Milton Shain points out. This means the Jews, to them, will never be seen nor accepted as part of the Aryan race. Though most profess to be followers of Christianity they continue to ignore the historical fact that Jesus lived and died an observing Jew. These are Trump supporters which he refuses to reprimand. Instead he has told Americans that these people are simply misunderstood and are in fact decent. Clearly the writing is on the wall that Trump is prepared to sacrifice whatever it takes to play a situation, provided it is beneficial and it enriches him. His greed and selfishness are legendary. His constant lies, dirty dealings, disregard for ethics and disrespect for America's judiciary system make him exceptionally toxic for whoever trusts and associates with him. History is filled by charlatans whom Jews have trusted and put their faith in, men who have promised much but delivered little. Donald Trump is no exception. He speaks with a fork-tongue. By the time Trump loses the 2020 election his Far-Right supporters will regurgitate the old scapegoat excuse to blame the Jews for their hero's downfall.             

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