October 17, 2019

The Fallout of Bigotry

Many in the civil rights community have warned of the corrosive effects of President Trump’s attitude towards minorities and extremists from the day he announced his candidacy. His comments at his announcement, during his campaign regarding Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, and, occasionally, Jews are now stuff of legend. He has continued in his incendiary musings during his tenure as president; he clearly holds stereotypic views of those who aren’t just like him.

But as insidious as his remarks are, even more troubling is his reluctance, or his inability, to relegate extremists (those who blatantly purvey hate and bigotry—not just dog whistles) to the periphery of American politics–as all his predecessors of the past century have done. He meets with them, he grants them interviews, and he ignores their toxic views to focus on those that align with his.

Instead of rejecting bigots out-of-hand, he has flaunted all the norms of political discourse and debate by using the very methodologies of those bigots. He traffics in bizarre conspiracy theories, he blithely ignores data, he bullies, attacks and demeans, he threatens, he blatantly lies with demonstrably false assertions on numerous issues, he claims to be the victim of a perpetual witch-hunt with a designated culprit[s] (other than himself) who is/are always to blame for what goes wrong.

Is it any wonder then that his brand of thinking has become more common, that extremists are being normalized and accepted, that bizarre—hitherto ostracized— views are now offered as an acceptable part of political discourse? The ripple effects of a sloppy thinker like Trump are only beginning to impact us.

This week, Moscow’s man in the House of Representatives, Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County, made clear that he has no qualms about consorting with a Holocaust denier.

After it was revealed that he took “conservative journalist” Charles C. Johnson [who has claimed that during the Holocaust around 250,000 Jews were killed in concentration camps and that the existence of gas chambers is questionable] to a meeting with Sen. Rand Paul, Rohrabacher found nothing amiss. He blithely asserted that “I welcome his support on those issues of agreement and oppose those ideas on which we disagree.”
Apparently, Holocaust deniers, bigots and extremists are acceptable if they endorse other issues that Rohrabacher supports.

He doesn’t get that Holocaust denial, and hate more broadly, are not isolated imperfections. The thinking that denies the most well documented crime in history, which blames minorities for society’s ills reflects a distorted and bizarre mind and an absence of reason and logic—it’s not a blip on an otherwise clear screen of sanity. Who would want the support of a bigot such as that?

That an American elected official in 2017 doesn’t feel compelled to ostracize and separate himself from a manifest extremist is an indicator of what is transpiring more widely.

This week the Anti-Defamation League reported a 67% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the US through the third quarter of 2017 as compared to 2016. Not surprisingly, of the 1,266 incidents some 221 occurred on or near the August 11 rally in Charlottesville—the event that Trump had such ambivalence in condemning (recall, he thought a bunch of regular folks were marching with torches and Nazi chants).

What Trump clearly doesn’t get is that political extremists are different than mainstream politicians on both the left and the right. For decades, civil rights organizations and good people have endeavored to ostracize and relegate to the fringes of society extremists who violate a set of unwritten rules on public conduct and decency.

From the John Birchers and their flirting with anti-Semitism in the 60s to George Wallace in the 70s to Louis Farrakhan more recently (see my op/ed of 9/17/1985 in the Times) to David Duke and Louisiana politic–policies or comments that flirted with bigotry and stereotypes, even if made in passing, were enough to derail careers, elicit presidential condemnations and generate near universal abhorrence. It was clear to most leaders that overt expressions of bigotry and stereotypes were not acceptable vocabulary of late 20th century America and those who purveyed them were deservedly isolated and shunned.

But we now have a president who not only doesn’t understand what extremism is (except for the easy to discern Islamic version), he inspires others to follow his myopic lead; to wink at hate and sanitize the hater because “he agrees with me on other significant issues.”

The reality is that the hater wins, his bigotry ends up tainting everyone who consorts with him; the rationalizers become aiders and abettors of prejudice and their own words and deeds become suspect.

Trump can’t be stalwart and uncompromising in condemning radical Islamic terrorism and its brand of hate while being timid and apologetic regarding other versions of bigotry. It’s morally and politically dishonest and corrupting.

As Sen. John McCain said in his speech to midshipmen at the Naval Academy earlier this week,

We have to fight against propaganda and crackpot conspiracy theories. We have to fight isolationism, protectionism, and nativism. We have to defeat those who would worsen our divisions. We have to remind our sons and daughters that we became the most powerful nation on earth by tearing down walls, not building them.