This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
America’s continuing slide towards violence, chaos and political division has cracked the thin enamel disguising society’s deep cleavages. Of course, the façade of America as a shining beacon of democracy perpetuated inequalities, human right abuses and subjugation, allowed these deep wounds to ache. Social protests related to racial inequities, the COVID-19 pandemic, a crushing crescendo of conspiracies and a flood of online disinformation has magnified the collective cognitive dissonance that torments neighbors, friends and families.
Us versus them narratives, especially those amplified online via social media, are contributing to the stoking of tensions which, in some cases, resulted in the loss of life. Discord expressed on major media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and many others is being stoked by executive leadership communications that are creating a convergence of movements, groups and individuals who feel that they must take to the streets to protect or fight for something.
Over the past four years, President Trump has painted a picture for his base that purports to harken back to a time, a golden age, in U.S. history when Americans were happy, safe, and gainfully employed. Yet, this painting is a forgery based on a fiction that never existed – especially for people of color who lived in a segregated world devoid of opportunity. The President’s rhetoric throughout his first term has always been divisive and tailored to sympathizers, but his oratory and tweets — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd protests — has accelerated the convergence of radicals who feel they have been anointed by the President to fight.
At the Republican National Convention, President Trump said (as he has many times before), “in every case, the attacks on American institutions are being waged by the radical left. Always remember, they are coming after me because I am fighting for you.” In saying this, the President is communicating to his base that they, and their livelihoods, are under indirect assault and that the President has selflessly put himself in harm’s way for the benefit of their future.
That begs the question — are the President’s words serving as a warrant of sorts for people to unilaterally act? In decoding these communications, some like Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with an AR-15 style rifle, may have been prompted to take to Kenosha’s streets to protect businesses and people. Before allegedly killing two people, Rittenhouse was on video saying he was in Kenosha to “help people.” Rittenhouse’s legal team has contended that he was a militia member operating within his constitutional right to stop the looting.
This line of reasoning ignores that private militias unless reporting under the authority of the President or Governor – an authorization that wasn’t made in Kenosha – are illegal. Shortly after the George Floyd protests, symbols of oppression, such as statues, were being removed (in many cases without the local government’s approval). In New Mexico, this prompted a militia member to illegally discharge his firearm into a group of demonstrators, who sought to tear down a monument, wounding one. In the lead up to this event, President Trump spoke sternly about the importance of preserving these symbols.
Racial discord, particularly violent acts conducted by white supremacists, has been on the rise in recent years. In one stark case, the President’s rhetoric was mimicked by the 2019 El Paso shooter who killed 23 people. In his manifesto, the shooter lamented a “Hispanic invasion” that was changing the fabric of America. News reports detailed that prior to the shooting, President Trump had used the term invasion more than 20 times to describe migration into the United States. This summer, the President also retweeted a video of his supporters where someone yelled “white power.” While Trump’s supporters minimize the President’s rhetoric as disagreement about communications style, there are many — some of whom are violent — who seize on his words as a basis to act. In the case of white supremacists, it can be used as a pretext to protect their (us) race from those (them) who threaten it.
More recently, using violence to “protect” one’s in-group against a perceived threat can also now be associated with the left in the wake of the Portland killing of a Trump supporter by an individual who has self-identified as an antifa member. In an interview with Vice News, the perpetrator of the attack, Michael Reinoehl said, “I could have sat there and watched them kill a friend of mine of color. But I wasn’t going to do that.” Like those on the right, Reinoehl felt justified to act on his own, outside the parameters of the law, because he needed to fight for his friend.
Never more than before, words and civility matter, especially a President’s, particularly during a pandemic when people feel uncertain and afraid. Rhetoric and tweets that spreads disinformation online is particularly problematic and only serves to reinforce us versus them fears that give rise to vigilantism and unilateralism that increase the escalation.
Until there is genuine interest in dialogue and communication that bridges differences, convincing Americans that we should become united will be an impossible task. And, frankly, we must not gloss over the acerbic hate-laced inflammatory tweets from the commander-in-chief as Ivanka Trump suggested in her Republican National Convention speech when she said, “I recognize that my dad’s communication style is not to everyone’s taste And I know his tweets can feel a bit – unfiltered. But the results speak for themselves.” I agree (tongue-in-cheek) with that last part – they sure do. A divided America eating itself from within. Ivanka, though is 100 percent wrong. A President’s words always matter and until the rhetoric changes from the top, America will remain uncivil and on the brink.
Jason M. Blazakis is Professor of Practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where he also serves as the Director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC). He is also a Senior Fellow at the Soufan Center. You can follow him on Twitter @jason_blazakis.