Donald Trump: Hallmarks of Dangerous Speech

At the Dangerous Speech Project, we are often asked whether President-elect Donald Trump’s remarks constitute Dangerous Speech. Since the United States is not at serious risk of mass violence between groups, in our view no speech can produce that terrible result any time soon. Some of the President-elect’s statement do bear telltale signs of Dangerous Speech however.

Two examples came in early August 2016, when Trump made the suggestion that ‘Second Amendment people’ stop Hillary Clinton. He may have intended to call for violence, or not. No one other than him knows, and it doesn’t matter — but it is very likely that some of his supporters understood him to be endorsing violence, which is a hallmark of Dangerous Speech. Audience members at Trump rallies, listening to his ambiguous but provocative language, have shouted out explicit calls for violence such as ‘hang the bitch,’ ‘kill her,’ and ‘build a wall — kill them all.’ The fact that some Trump supporters have been calling for violence openly this  way — meeting no rebukes from others in the crowd nor from the candidate — suggests that their norms of speech and belief are changing. They believe it’s acceptable to cry out, openly and in public, ‘kill!.’

Trump understands that his supporters can resort to group violence (he has said so) and since they regard him as their leader and their voice, he has the power to discourage them. Surely he also has a responsibility to do so, but he has so far chosen to do this in limited fashion or not at all. Over the course of his campaign, he became less inclined to calm his followers’ frightening impulses. On one of the first occasions when Trump supporters chanted ‘lock her up,’ he told them that he would instead defeat Clinton, but he later rescinded that caution, saying “I am taking the gloves off.” In light of that it is not surprising that the spike in hate crimes following the election included many incidents that were done in Trump’s name, literally by people who spray-painted or shouted ‘Trump’ in the course of their attacks.

One day after his Second Amendment remark, Trump compounded it with the bizarre assertion that Hillary Clinton and President Obama are co-founders of the Islamic State or ISIS (also referring to the latter as ‘Barack Hussein Obama’.) After insisting, even in response to incredulous questions, that he really meant that Clinton and Obama co-founded ISIS, a few hours later Trump reversed himself and said the remark was ‘sarcastic.’ Sarcastic or not, whether he intends to incite violence or not, Trump was able to foresee the danger. Many Americans perceive ISIS as an existential threat, and to describe other Americans as ISIS founders is to identify them as enemies and as traitors, who can be seen as worse than enemies.

Demonizing people that way is dangerous, and all too familiar: Dangerous Speech often attacks members of an in-group for alleged sympathies with an enemy out-group. Simon Bikindi, a well-known pop singer in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, was later prosecuted for incitement to genocide, based on three of his songs, of which the most famous has the refrain “I Hate These Hutu.” The song was an attack on members of Bikindi’s own group (Hutus) whom he denounced for being sympathetic to Tutsi, the targets of the genocide. Like many examples of Dangerous Speech, none of the songs contained an explicit call to violence.

In noting a rhetorical pattern shared by Trump’s speech and Bikindi’s, I suggest neither that Trump meant to call for violence — much less genocide — nor that his speech is sure to inspire violence. That is impossible to predict reliably. Nor am I suggesting that there is a risk of genocide or ethnic cleansing in the United States. I’m alarmed by the volatile new combination of speech that legitimizes violence, with speech that identifies members of an in-group as enemies, or traitors. As isolated incidents, both of Trump’s outrageous statements are worrisome. Taken in combination, they are much worse.

The vast majority of Trump supporters, like the majority of almost any group, will not resort to violence. However, as the assassinations of British MP Jo Cox and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin showed, political speech that simultaneously demonizes people and legitimates violence can shift speech norms, and inspire violence by the subset of people who are easily incited to it. As the British journalist Alex Massie wrote in the aftermath of Cox’s killing:

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.

So what is the solution? Inflammatory speech like the President-elect’s is not illegal, nor should it be censored. Instead, people with influence over Trump followers must make it clear that discourse is unacceptable when it is understood to endorse or even encourage hatred and violence - no matter who speaks. This will clarify and reinforce norms that should govern the public sphere. There are models of this, even in recent memory. For example in 2008, then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain responded to incensed supporters at a campaign event who called Obama an ‘Arab,’ ‘liar,’ and ‘terrorist,’ by telling them that he admired and respected Obama and was Obama’s opponent because of political differences.

Freedom of expression is of utmost importance, more during an electoral process than ever. But political speech need not be dangerous, no matter how fervent, nor how deep the disagreements it expresses.