Trump's rhetoric and its worrying ramifications

As hate crimes surge, the onus is on the US president-elect to tone down his remarks

In the week after Mr Donald Trump won the US presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Centre recorded more than 700 incidents of "hateful harassment and intimidation" of minorities.

The centre, which monitors hate speech nationwide, drew on news accounts, direct reports and social media postings to find that many incidents "involved direct references to the Trump campaign and its slogans". 

 Other civil rights groups have reported a rash of verbal and physical abuse targeting minorities, including Muslims, blacks, Latinos, Jews, gays and immigrants, around the United States since Nov 9, the day after the election. Clearly, the surge in hate incidents shows that Mr Trump and his top advisers created a climate in which some supporters feel that they can openly express bigotry, racism and homophobia. 

Muslims have suffered the biggest spike in attacks, partly because Mr Trump singled out Islam for criticism throughout the campaign. On Nov 14, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that hate crimes against Muslims last year surged to their highest level in more than a decade.

Last year, the FBI recorded a total of 5,850 hate crimes, including bombings, assaults, threats and property destruction against minority groups. The FBI data showed there were 257 reports of attacks on mosques, assaults and other hate incidents against Muslims last year, compared with 154 incidents the previous year - an increase of about 67 per cent. It was the highest number of incidents against Muslims recorded since 2001, when more than 480 attacks took place after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks. (Hate crimes against other groups also increased last year, with anti-Jewish incidents rising by 9 per cent, and anti-black crimes increasing by nearly 8 per cent.) 

So far, Mr Trump has failed to make any substantial move to promote inclusion or to reach out to minority groups worried about his election, says the writer. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes last year was due to terrorist attacks in the US and the West, many of which were claimed by supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its affiliates, and to the vitriolic tone of the presidential campaign. The rhetoric by Mr Trump and some of his supporters sends a message that Muslim Americans, immigrants and other minority groups pose a danger to America.

 So far, Mr Trump has failed to make any substantial move to promote inclusion or to reach out to minority groups rightfully worried about his election. He also offered only a tepid condemnation of post-election abuses. On Nov 13, during an interview with the CBS news programme 60 Minutes, Mr Trump was asked about reports of his supporters harassing Muslims and other minorities. He responded: "I am so saddened to hear that. And I say, 'Stop it.'"

 And Mr Trump has not eased fears with the early top appointments to his administration. Mr Trump selected retired general Michael Flynn, who is also a former head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, as his national security adviser. General Flynn has made inflammatory statements about Islam, comparing it to a "cancer" and claiming it is a political ideology that "definitely hides behind being a religion". In February, he tweeted that "fear of Muslims is RATIONAL".

 This vitriol is reinforced by Mr Trump. Last December, after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Mr Trump shocked the world when he called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants and visitors from entering the US - until American leaders "can figure out what the hell is going on".

During the presidential campaign, Mr Trump called on law enforcement officials to increase surveillance of Muslim American communities and mosques. He also said he would consider registering Muslims in a database, or requiring them to carry special identification cards. He argued such measures would prevent future terrorist attacks.  

Now that Mr Trump has been elected president, many Muslim Americans fear that he and his advisers will turn some of these proposals into reality. On Nov 16, Mr Carl Higbie, one of Mr Trump's advisers, appeared on Fox News to defend the idea of a national registry of Muslims - a proposal that Mr Trump repeated numerous times during the campaign.  

To defend the idea's questionable legality, Mr Higbie cited one of America's darkest periods: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision during World War II to classify more than 100,000 Japanese, German and Italian immigrants as "enemy aliens". That executive order, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court, paved the way for the internment of tens of thousands of non-citizens and US citizens of Japanese descent, following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

 "I'm just saying there's a precedent for it," Mr Higbie said, when challenged by Fox News host Megyn Kelly about the wisdom of establishing a national registry for Muslims.

 After Mr Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination, there was much discussion of whether he would adjust his views to appeal to a broader American public in the election. But even after other Republican leaders denounced his comments, especially his attacks on the family of a decorated Muslim American soldier who was killed in Iraq, Mr Trump refused to curtail his criticism of Islam. As long as that strategy won him votes, he had little incentive to disavow it.

 In March, during an interview with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, Mr Trump declared flatly: "I think Islam hates us." When Mr Cooper asked him to clarify whether the religion is at war with the West, Mr Trump added: "There's a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There's an unbelievable hatred of us." 

This kind of rhetoric has real-world consequences. After the November 2015 attacks in Paris by ISIS operatives who killed more than 130 people, and the Dec 2 shooting in San Bernardino by a Muslim couple who declared their support for ISIS' leader, the FBI and civil rights groups logged a surge in hate crimes against Muslim Americans. The FBI had tracked a monthly average of 12.6 suspected hate crimes against Muslims nationwide over several years; after the Paris attacks, the rate of incidents tripled, to 38, by mid-December. 

Today, as reports of hate crimes and harassment surge after a bitter presidential race, the onus is on Mr Trump to tone down his rhetoric and that of his advisers. But so far, the president-elect has shown little interest in tackling the wave of hatred and abuse that was partly unleashed by his own campaign.

  • The writer is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, a New York newspaper.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2016, with the headline 'Trump's rhetoric and its worrying ramifications'. Print Edition | Subscribe