Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. She writes on war, including war and cinema. Follow her on Twitter @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
After slandering Mexicans, Donald Trump has declared open season on African-Americans
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: The Trump campaign is playing a dangerous game
After slandering Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, and retweeting images of monkeys trying to cross the border, Donald Trump has declared open season on African-Americans.
On Sunday, Trump defended the beating of a black protester who disrupted a campaign rally. White supporters punched and kicked the man, who was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt.
Hours later, Trump retweeted an image of a black gunman, twinned with false statistics that blame blacks for 97% of violence against blacks in America, shifting attention away from the white police brutality against blacks that has been so much in the news lately.
As in the gallery of images he retweeted a few weeks ago – which attacked Hispanics and rival candidate Jeb Bush as their protector, but also included an image of a Nazi swastika – Trump chose visuals meant to fan the fires of prejudice in his supporters.
Conservatives and political commentators such as Tom Bevan of RealClearPolitics.com minimize Trump’s outrageousness as all part of a social media strategy designed to keep him in the spotlight.
But this blunts the political force of his tweets, helping his more mainstream followers to avoid uncomfortable truths about the causes they are supporting by backing him.
For make no mistake: The image of the dark-skinned gunman is highly political. The top half of his body advertises what many Americans would characterize as gangster style, from the head and face coverings to the side grip shooting technique.
Art at Donald Trump's campaign headquarters
The bottom half is where things get more complicated. The combat boots, canvas belt, and camo pants conjure the military. It’s true that gang members have sometimes adopted camo pants as part of their look, but these items, together with the ammo pouch, are more commonly worn not only by military personnel of all races, but also by two overlapping and predominantly white groups that Trump caters to with his scare tactics: gun enthusiasts and survivalists. It’s not surprising that this image has circulated in various forms on gun blogs.
In truth, there is a double political meaning to this image. It certainly fans racial fears in whites by associating blacks with paramilitary powers. But it also alludes to the accumulating paramilitary powers of whites, who have been stockpiling arsenals for years now, helped by the power of the National Rifle Association. (Trump is a lifetime NRA member and enjoys an A-plus rating from the organization.)
Many of these men and women fear the loss of the white majority in their country. Projections by the U.S. Census Bureau released in 2012 indicate that by 2043, more than 50% of America’s population will be made up of people now classified as “minorities.” By 2060, one in five Americans will be foreign-born.
These statistics hold the key to some of the Republican rhetoric during this presidential campaign. They are the glue that unites the denigration of African-Americans – who are hardly recent arrivals to this country – with attacks on the “Americanness” of immigrants, the distrust of those who speak multiple languages, on to the tarring of entire faiths and nationalities as associated with terrorism.
The GOP is now making noises to contain Trump, who has said he would consider running as an independent if he does not win the Republican Party nomination. And he has already come far in building a constituency of white Christians through a social media campaign that fosters hatred through a savvy use of words and images. Let’s not forget that in August, two men invoked Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiments in beating a homeless man with a metal pipe and urinating on him.
The Trump campaign, which routinely issues “condemnations” of the violent speech and actions that surround its leader, is playing a dangerous game. It is urgent for the GOP to consider Trump’s racial rhetoric as a wake-up call. For the good of the entire nation, Republican leaders must shift the conversation in a more constructive direction.