There has been little inspirational about the U.S. presidential race, especially on the Republican side where insults have replaced argument and bigotry has become a cheap currency for winning over voters, but there are also significant lessons in this debased debate, writes Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
As the Republican primary plays itself out, cruelty has become a campaign come-on to voters who say they are frustrated and angry with traditional politics. Frustrated and angry feelings short-circuit critical thinking and create a yearning for the quick emotional release that comes with vengeful speech and acts. Donald Trump has become a master manipulator of this situation.
Trump has the type of personality that lends itself to using such an approach. He is a bully acting out. You can see this when he denigrates his opponents as losers. On the other hand, he is self-aggrandizing, always describing himself as a winner. And, apparently, he has little capacity for self-reflection about his own speech and actions.
Some have described Trump as a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder. Whether or not that is how you want to label him, he certainly has no problem publicly promoting cruelty. And, a subset of the American population responds positively to his abusive behavior. Here are a few examples:
Trump tolerates and indeed supports physical attacks on opponents who show up at his rallies. He sometimes encourages his supporters to violence by saying that he would like to punch protesters in the face. In the summer of 2015 he promised that if members of Black Lives Matter showed up at his rallies, “they would have a fight on their hands. I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself, or if other people will.”
That prediction came true in Birmingham, Alabama, in November of last year, when a Black Lives Matter protester who simply shouted “black lives matter” was roughed up and insulted during a Trump rally.
The next day Trump justified the actions of his supporters. “He [the protester] was so obnoxious and so loud” that “maybe he should have been roughed up.”
At another rally, this one in Vermont on a frigid January 2016 evening, when confronted with protesters, he told his security people to steal their coats before ejecting them. “Throw them out into the cold. Don’t give them their coats no coats confiscate their coats.”
Muslims and Torture
Those are specific local displays of Donald Trump’s ability to act cruelly and encourage others to do so as well. But this dangerous trend goes on at a larger scale as well. For instance:
Trump has used unwarranted generalizations against groups he is suspicious of – generalizations that place group members in the sort of danger that comes with public stereotyping. This is particularly true when it comes to Muslims on the one hand and Mexicans on the other.
Trump appears to lump all Muslims in the same category as those who, to use his words, are “chopping off our heads in the Middle East.” Those who want “to kill us” and “knock out our cities.” Such a generalization ratchets up an already dangerous level of Islamophobia and sets the stage for other publicly proclaimed positions such as the closing of U.S. borders to all Muslims until such time as “our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Actually, there are a lot of people in and out of the U.S. government who already know what is going on. However, because the answer to this question has to do with longstanding, special-interest-driven foreign policies, “our representatives” have, for political reasons, never moved to rectify matters. And, its questionable whether Trump as president would respond any differently.
Trump’s generalization about Muslims has apparently helped promote popular acceptance of another particularly cruel and misplaced policy proposal – the revival of the use of torture (often euphemistically called “enhanced interrogative methods”). Thus he has recently proclaimed, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work, torture works. Believe me, it works.” This was followed by a typical Trumpism: “only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.”
Just how does he know this with such certainty? Has he ever tortured anybody in order to get specific information? Has he ever been tortured for information he held? Indeed, did he do any research on the subject before passing judgment?
The truth about the efficacy of torture is just the opposite. It has been known not to work at least since the early Eighteenth Century when Cesare Beccaria and other Enlightenment figures began to publicly call attention to the fact that there was no evidence that torture produced truthful confessions or other trustworthy information. Most professional interrogators since that time, with the exception of the small cadre of CIA torturers gathered around George W. Bush, have concluded that someone being tortured will tell their tormentors anything he or she thinks will stop the pain, regardless of its veracity. Obviously the consensus of expert opinion on this matter means as little to Donald Trump as it did to George W. Bush.
Mexicans and Mass Deportation
Donald Trump has declared that he wants to deport just about every illegal resident of the United States – of which there are an estimated 11.3 million. Though he claims that he would do this “humanely,” the size of such an operation would certainly entail the uprooting of thousands of families and the impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of individuals. In other words, it is one of those socio-political operations that cannot help but result in acts of official cruelty and the encouragement of dangerous xenophobic sentiments
Most of the immigrants at risk are people from Mexico who cross the southern U.S. border clandestinely. Trump’s solution is twofold: 1. Build a wall along that roughly 2,000-mile border. “I will build a great wall and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” In addition he would add 25,000 new immigration agents and deploy drones to watch the border. 2. Deport all the Mexicans who are illegally resident in the U.S., most of whom, according to Trump, come from the dregs of Mexican society.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime.” This belies the research that shows that most immigrants are more law-abiding than native citizens.
Trump also works on the assumptions that Mexican immigration increases unemployment and holds down wages. But is this really true? If there is any competition for jobs it would be for underpaid work that Americans, even the undereducated, tend not to want – thus creating the employment opportunities that attracts “illegals” across the Mexican border in the first place.
Trump Is Not Alone
The difference between Trump and the other candidates, both Republican and Democrat, is that he openly panders to emotions and fears that generate support for cruel actions and policies. Though other candidates might not act this way during the campaign, they might, if given the chance, prove every bit as capable of initiating cruel acts and policies in the name of “American interests.” Given her actions in relationship to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, we know this is certainly true of Hillary Clinton.
It might well be that most presidents have acted cruelly at some point during their term of office. Take for example President Barack Obama, who, on the one hand, put an end to President George W. Bush’s practice of torture while, on the other hand, expanded an infamous and on-going campaign of drone murder. Nonetheless, the vast majority of presidents have not personally sought to stir up hatred, though ambitious demagogues and the rightwing media often do.
It is important to understand that there is always a subset of any population, including that in the United States, susceptible to the posturing and rhetorical style of a person like Donald Trump (who, by the way, often strikes poses and speaks in a fashion reminiscent of Benito Mussolini). This susceptible subset is looking for simple answers forcefully presented; they have a longstanding resentment of minorities and immigrants; they distrust the political establishment; and they feel disenfranchised. Their feelings and fears mean more to them than the nation’s Constitution or other laws.
The number of such people becomes larger or smaller depending on economic and social circumstances. But they never go away entirely – their numbers never drop to zero.
In the case of Trump’s appeal to the American public, my estimate is that this number may currently stand at one-quarter to one-third of the adult population.
The Trump phenomenon stands as a powerful reason why it is in the nation’s interest that the government pay attention to issues that hold to a minimum public resentment: issues such as general equality of opportunity, fairness in the market place, tax equity, combating discriminatory practices, the serious problem of special-interest influence in politics, as well as the need to enhance social services ranging from unemployment insurance and Social Security to the right to health care and education.
Trump’s popularity also stands as a powerful reason why the government must see to the dissemination of accurate information on such issues as immigrants and the economy, the real consequences of “free trade” treaties, the positive and necessary role of regulation, and last but certainly not least, the positive role of Muslims in America.
To the extent that both the Republicans, as well as the more conservative Democrats have stood in the way of such things, they have bred the frustration and dissatisfaction that Trump now exploits. Thus they have only themselves to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. Of course, that is little solace to the rest of us.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest;ã€€America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.