Days before Charlottesville, Trump was stirring the prejudice pot

by Rachel Morris / 15 August, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Trump

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands behind a crowd of white nationalists at a rally on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo/Getty Images

Trump warned “they rape and they rob. They prey on children. They shouldn’t be here.”

On July 26, the day that Donald Trump’s Twitter-issued order to ban transgender people from the military was swiftly condemned by both Democrats and Republicans, the President told a lurid story about “the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long”. Speaking at a rally in Ohio, describing an incident that seemingly occurred only in his imagination, Trump warned that “criminal aliens” would “take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die”.

On July 28, the day that three Republican senators torpedoed Trump’s healthcare bill in the early hours of the morning, he gave a speech in a suburb of Long Island. Or, as he described it, one of the “blood-stained killing fields” that was under siege by criminal gangs from across the border. “They rape and they rob. They prey on children. They shouldn’t be here.” It was time, he told a gathering of cheering police officers, to “liberate” America’s towns from the “animals”. And, he added, law enforcement shouldn’t hesitate to get “rough” with “thugs” in the process.

Painting minorities as monsters, using rape of innocent girls as a stand-in for racial defilement – these are attacks with a long, ugly, potent history in the US. In modern times, politicians have mostly only invoked them using subtly crafted dog whistles. But Trump has gone for the break-in-case-of-emergency switch, appealing directly and unapologetically to the most visceral, dangerous undercurrents of the country’s politics. And the scary thing is his attacks are probably only going to get worse.

Six months into the strangest presidency in US history, Trump is in a precarious place. The failure of his healthcare bill may have sunk his ability to pass any major legislation for the rest of the year.

Republicans and Democrats are banding together to prevent him from firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel who is investigating his campaign for possible collusion with Russia. Congress unanimously supported a Russia sanctions law that, in an extraordinary rebuke, explicitly forbids the President from weakening the penalties against Vladimir Putin’s Government for interfering with the 2016 election. Republicans haven’t exactly turned into the Resistance, but their sudden willingness to defy their president is significant.

Backed into a corner, with multiple legal investigations closing in, Trump is doing his best to inflame his core supporters. And not only with blood-curdling speeches. In early August, it emerged that the civil rights department of the Justice Department intends to investigate discrimination against white students in college admissions – an undertaking that grossly distorts the actual inequities in the US’s education system but happens to be extremely popular with Trump’s base.

He’s creating new enemies too. Trump has been railing against the media as the “enemy of the people” for a while, but this month, he took the attacks to a new level, when the Justice Department threatened to prosecute journalists who publish leaks about his administration.

Never mind that some of Trump’s most trusted advisers are notorious leakers or that the First Amendment will make this policy difficult to enforce – the primary purpose was arguably to whip up his base into a fervour against the press.

Almost on cue, the National Rifle Association released a sinister video warning the media – specifically the “old grey hag” known as the New York Times – that “we’re coming for you”. This is dangerous stuff. These attacks may help Trump keep his most loyal supporters in line, but what if they also take his message seriously?

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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