Beyond Trump: US Officials Using Hallmarks of Dangerous Speech

Much of the world is transfixed at present by Donald Trump’s often insulting and provocative language. But like any speech, it can only be fully understood in context – which now includes remarks more belligerent and shocking than Trump’s, from his supporters who have shouted “Kill her” and “Build the wall – kill them all” at recent Trump rallies, and from other elected officials such as governors of U.S. states. Paul LePage, the governor of Maine, recently called a Maine state legislator a ‘cocksucker,’ described people of color and Hispanics as ‘the enemy,’ and said, in the same August 26 news conference, that the proper way to treat enemies is to shoot them. This endorsement of violence against minority groups came in a context of fear and anxiety about the heroin crisis for which LePage blames them.

LePage has been governor since 2011, and has long been making remarks that many of his constituents find abhorrent, but in the context of a deeply divisive election, he no longer seems alone. Moreover, like Trump and other public figures, he uses typical techniques of dangerous speech, to pit one group of people against another.  This includes Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky, who recently suggested that the blood of patriots will have to be shed to save the country if Hillary Clinton were to become president.

The shooting remark was far from the first time LePage spoke dangerously. Earlier this year, also talking about heroin, he made remarks that display a more subtle, but all-too-common hallmark of Dangerous Speech: to suggest that men of an out-group are threatening the in-group by having sex with its women or girls. In January 2016 LePage said:

These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty. These types of guys, they come from Connecticut and New York. They come up here, they sell their heroin, then they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue that we got to deal with down the road.

LePage was evidently referring to African-American men, from the nicknames he chose, although he later denied it. Either way, his audience probably understood him to be talking about black men, and he should have known that they would. Coded language is typical of dangerous speech, not by coincidence. When shared e.g. by a speaker and audience, coded language is a social glue that can hold people together. This is why sports teams, social groups, gangs, and even families often have their own jargon.

Vilifying members of an outsider group by portraying them as a physical threat to one’s own group is an effective method of conjuring fear, and it is a classic hallmark of Dangerous Speech. LePage’s comment also does something more specific: a technique all too often used in Dangerous Speech. Instead of accusing outsiders of threatening the whole group or preparing to attack, he accuses them of invading in another way. He takes advantage of a cultural association between the purity of young girls and the purity of a group’s identity.

Women and their bodies often stand in for group identity.  The writer and analyst Soraya Chemaly argued recently that when French policemen obliged a woman on the beach to remove some of her clothing, under the authority of a local ban on “burkinis,” they made her “into a boundary of a nation.” Chemaly cites the work of the sociologists Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis who contend that women are often understood as “symbols of national identity,” and “reproducers of the boundaries of the nation.” Where this is so, a threat to women – or a false report of a threat – can seem to put a group’s very identity and way of life at stake, even without any mention of weapons. Such claims, graphic and alarming, are common.

For example in February 2016, the entire cover of the Polish magazine wSieci was  a terrifying image of a blond, white woman wrapped in the flag of the European Union – and screaming in terror. She is being grasped and pulled by dark skinned arms behind a bold headline that reads “The Islamic Rape of Europe.” Not surprisingly, the image reminded readers of Holocaust-era fascist propaganda that portrayed white women being assaulted by Jewish and African men, as depicted in a tweet below.

Using a woman as a symbol for European identity, the image ties the idea of her violation to a threat to Europe itself and its people’s’ way of life. The symbolism is likely to cultivate fear and even inspire violence, since the threat is even more than physical. Outsiders, in this case Muslim refugees and immigrants, are not just coming to kill and rape; they pose an existential threat to European identity. The fact that the woman is draped in the European flag makes this Dangerous Speech hallmark unusually explicit.

In a wide variety of cultures, reports or allegations of rape by out-group men have catalyzed violence. In one example, the Buddhist nationalist organization 969 spread a rumor in July 2014 that two Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman in the Burmese city of Mandalay. The rumor spread widely, and then a riot broke out in which two people were killed and at least 14 were injured. Because of longstanding propaganda against Muslims in Myanmar, it is all too easy to catalyze violence with such rumors.

This is not the case in the United States now, but not long ago it was, as LePage and other Americans know all too well. Black men have long been portrayed as sexual threats to the purity of white women and, as a result, threats to white culture and control. Indeed, this hallmark of Dangerous Speech has led to countless lynchings in the past. In one of the most famous, Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy, was tortured and murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman publicly in Mississippi. More recently, the killer Dylann Roof reportedly said, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go,” just before massacring nine black churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015.

Taken together, Paul LePage’s comments about drug dealers and Hispanics, Trump’s own remarks characterizing Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, and Trump’s supporters’ violent shouts at rallies may not be dangerous enough to inspire violence, are quite alarming. The fact that such remarks possess hallmarks of Dangerous Speech and are now found in public discourse in the United States, online and offline, may indicate that they are becoming more acceptable.