Now that Donald Trump is president, he has an even greater responsibility to denounce hateful speech and violence: some of it is being committed in his name, and he has enormous influence that would help to stop it. Indeed, precedent suggests that this would work. Six days after the September 11 attacks, amid a surge of hate crimes against Muslims, George W. Bush gave a speech entitled “Islam is Peace” and said ‘in our anger and emotion, Americans must treat each other with respect’ – specifically mentioning U.S. citizens who are Muslims. Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States dropped dramatically, beginning the next day.
Far from giving a speech, President Trump has neither spoken out nor written one tweet against the violent vitriol that has followed his rise to the presidency. Although it has diminished since we first demanded that Trump speak out, in November, his first few days in office have brought more hateful, screaming rhetoric in American public spaces (actual and online) and even the shooting of an anti-right protester. His silence on this topic suggests tacit approval, not only to the extreme and the violent, but to millions of others who are looking to the new president to set, or reaffirm, norms for speech and behavior.
More than 1,000 cases of bias- and hate-related harassment were collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center in just a month after the election. More than a third of those (37%) were committed in Trump’s name, literally using his name (replacing the T with a swastika in graffiti for example) or making reference to things he had said (such as ‘#gobacktoAfrica Make America Great Again’ painted in a Minnesota school bathroom). In recent weeks the episodes have continued, against many of the groups that President Trump has maligned, as well as other minorities: immigrants, Muslims, African-American, and Jews.
As we have written before, the Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer is planning an armed march against the Jews of Whitefish, Montana, ostensibly because a Jewish woman in Whitefish allegedly harassed the mother of the far right leader Richard Spencer. One day before Trump’s inauguration, protesters gathered outside of the Islamic Center in Washington D.C., harassing passersby and worshippers, shouting through the gates of the center hostile phrases such as, “Your prophet is a pedophile,” with a megaphone. On the day of the inauguration, a protester at a Seattle event hosted by Milo Yiannopoulos, a provocative and controversial editor for the far right website Breitbart, was shot by a Trump supporter after hours of tense clashes between the protesters, supporters, and the police.
Other Americans are alarmed and speaking out – but they don’t have the president’s capacity to reach and persuade large numbers of Americans, including Trump supporters. For example, one day after the inauguration, comedian Aziz Ansari used his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live to urge Trump to speak out against hatred and discrimination. Ansari said:
I think Trump should make a speech. A real speech denouncing the lower-case K.K.K. Don’t tweet about me being lame or the show. Write a speech. A real speech.
Indeed, Trump has uttered only a few phrases on hateful speech since the election – always in response to questions from journalists. He said, “Stop it,” on 60 Minutes and, “I disavow and condemn them,” in an interview with The New York Times.
President Trump is more than capable of denouncing others, strongly, at length, and without any public interest at stake. He has accused his own party of plotting to make a ‘sinister deal’ against him, compared U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazi officials when accusing them of leaking damaging information about him to the press, and rebuked Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for inciting violence – although they didn’t do so – at his rallies. He has, online and in speeches, consistently and fervently denounced the press as untrustworthy and unfair. President Trump has a unique and undeniable responsibility to apply that same vigor to denouncing bias, hatred, and any related violence, on the part of any and all Americans.