By Jason Raylesberg
Associate Editor, Vol. 21
Contributing Editor, Vol. 22
It is a very real and terrifying possibility that Donald Trump will be our next president. Accepting that prospect means accepting that the hatred, divisiveness, and racism he has given voice to across America will continue to intensify along with his rise. In recent weeks, that disturbing trend has materialized in violence at rallies in Indiana, Arizona, Illinois, and several other states. As the head of the Republican Party recently stated regarding Mr. Trump, “violence only begets more violence.” Mr. Trump has warned of riots should there be a brokered convention. Given his supporters’ fierce loyalty, violent riots could very well take place throughout our country if Mr. Trump is not elected as president. Such a backlash would press on the same national nerve that has been at the core of major social divides in our country, like the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. These possibilities over the next few months should deeply concern us. How can we combat the force of his dangerous rhetoric before it further divides the country, damages our international reputation, and endangers people’s lives?
To characterize Mr. Trump’s ascent solely in terms of the candidate, however, misconstrues his phenomenon. That narrative gives him more credit than he is due. Mr. Trump did not entirely create or inspire his supporters. They existed long before him. Not all Trump supporters are drawn to him purely due to his racist and bigoted perspective. However, every Trump supporter is, by virtue of wanting him to be President, comfortable with the prospect of a bigoted racist at the helm of the U.S. executive branch. Any effort aimed at stunting Mr. Trump’s rise must therefore be two-pronged: challenging him directly — his credibility, his violations of the country’s laws, and holes in his policy acumen — and challenging the deep-set beliefs of his supporters. To work toward this, we must 1) present a more positive and compelling counter-narrative than the one advocated by his supporters and 2) use the legal system to challenge the dangerous and violent impact of his rhetoric.
There is a far-fetched analogy to be drawn between Mr. Trump and ISIS. The rise of each has been fueled by an “us v. them” narrative — Mr. Trump v. the “elite and educated establishment”; the Islamic State v. Western civilization. Both have many followers distraught with the state of their own lives, particularly by their socioeconomic status. Many of these individuals are attracted to a movement that provides a voice for their resultant anger and desperation, however misplaced or irrational that outlet may be. Both encourage, enable, and deepen bigoted, racist, and sexist views. Given this, those working to change the minds of Trump’s adherents — organizations like the American Future Fund, Club for Growth Action, and Our Principles PAC — should study efforts the U.S. government has taken and potential efforts outlined in well-respected publications — to combat the infiltration of jihadist propaganda within the American consciousness.
For example, Secretary of State John Kerry recently met with Hollywood executives to discuss “storytelling” strategies to combat the narrative ISIS espouses. In a New York Times article discussing ways to counteract ISIS’s appeal in the U.S., a U.S. Naval War researcher writes that “one of the most effective ways for the West to reach potential recruits online is to amplify the firsthand accounts of fighters who return disillusioned to Western countries from the ISIS battlefield. These narratives include those of defectors who say ISIS’ atrocities are “far from the principles of Islam” to those who warn that the reality of the caliphate is “totally different” than what ISIS propaganda portrays. Organizations aimed at defeating Mr. Trump should similarly amplify firsthand accounts of those who have worked closely with Mr. Trump and become disillusioned by his failed promises, false pretenses, and egotistical motivations. Some of these Trump “defectors” have spoken out themselves in articles like this one by a former Trump campaign advisor. To maximally ingrain Mr. Trump’s supporters with the harsh caveat emptor reality tied to the prospect of his nomination, it is necessary for these organizations and the press to thoroughly root out more of these individuals and considerably expose what they have learned. Additionally, organizations like Our Principles PAC must better identify and analyze the sources and channels of his supporters views — in what ways are they being exacerbated on a local level? How can we present a more compelling narrative that will persuade his constituents? How can we legally reprimand those acting on their most hostile and dangerous views?
But of course, it is almost impossible to change many people’s deeply set beliefs. Were it that easy, the course of our Civil Rights history would have been lined with significantly fewer roadblocks. One way Trump can be successfully challenged, however, is through the legal system. In particular, he could be prosecuted for inciting violence at his rallies. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court articulated the standard against which someone should be adjudged for doing exactly that. Brandenburg involved a KKK leader who made a speech encouraging people to take revenge on the government and “walk on Congress” for their alleged “suppression” of the white race. 395 U.S. 444, 446. While the Court found the speech incendiary, they ultimately found that the Ohio statute that barred incendiary speech unconstitutionally abridged First Amendment rights. 395 U.S. 444, 449. Further, the court found that the statute was overbroad because it did not address how imminently the lawless action must take place in response to such speech. 395 U.S. 444, 448. Consequently, the Court refined and formulated a new standard for when “incitement to violence” speech is barred by the constitution: (1) speech can be prohibited if it is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and (2) it is “likely to incite or produce such action.” Against this standard, could Donald Trump be successfully charged?
Trump has used speech that is patently directed at inciting lawless actions. He creates environments conducive to and approving of violence. A selection of quotations from several recent rallies reflect his implicit condoning of violence: “if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them…I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees;” “see, in the good old days this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily;” “I love the old days—you know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” Recently, he warned of riots should he not be chosen as the Republican nominee and has threatened violence at Bernie Sanders’ rallies.
Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is also directed at inciting imminent lawless action, and is likely to incite that action. This has become clearer as the campaign season continues on and his rallies show no signs of subsiding in volatility. Inciting violence is not Mr. Trump’s primary objective at his rallies, but it has become an inevitable consequence of them, which he refuses to condemn. Not only has Mr. Trump explicitly encouraged violence, he has shown no disdain or condemnation for people getting injured at his rallies. When Mr. Trump thinks someone or something should be condemned, he does so unequivocally and mercilessly: his condemnation of Muslims, his feud with Megyn Kelly, his stereotypes of the Mexican community, etc. His character and record therefore render any omitted condemnation particularly significant. Both his powerful statements and omissions give rise to the natural and foreseeable consequence that lawless action will occur at his rallies. Given the fierce trust and loyalty of many of his supporters, Mr. Trump has a moral duty to recognize the dangerous impact of both what he says and does not say on crowds to which he speaks. His explicit and implicit endorsements of violence not only reflect a failure to abide by this moral duty, but also demonstrate that the scope of his rhetoric violates the legal standard articulated in Brandenburg.
The scariest realization of all is that many of Mr. Trump’s supporters may actually already understand that Trump, if elected, would probably have a sweeping corrosive effect on the country, and the international community generally, among much else. In spite of this, they do not care. Perhaps this indifference is borne from a desire to make America suffer as much as they have. Perhaps it is simply good entertainment to them. Perhaps they sincerely believe he has their best interests at heart. Whatever their reasons, such inflexibility on the part of many of his supporters must not deter efforts to persuade as many people as possible back to their senses. We must do our part to fight back before this radical vision of the U.S. sneaks up on us and comes to define the country we know — or thought we knew — and love.