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Story highlights

Ben-Ghiat: To have any impact on Trump, citizens have to approach those who can influence him

Now Trump broadcasts his personal insults to millions, and some who hear and read him likely see themselves as bound to act on his behalf

Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. The opinions in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

It sounds like something out of a political thriller. A union leader calls out a politician for lying about the number of jobs he is saving with a deal. The politician retaliates by insulting him publicly on Twitter.

Within half an hour, the menacing messages begin. “You better keep your eye on your kids,” the politician’s supporters tell the labor leader. “We know what car you drive.”

This is no fiction. The politician in question is our President-elect, Donald Trump; the union leader is Chuck Jones, head of a Steelworkers’ Union local in Indiana.

And the progression of events is now a familiar one. Trump tweets a personal attack on something or someone. His followers then back it up with insults and often threats (including rape, if the subject is a woman) by phone, in person, and on social media.

Throughout the cycle, Trump remains silent, leaving his supporters to interpret his messages as they see fit – and to act accordingly. Lauren Batchelder, a college student who Trump called “arrogant” after she asserted that he was “not a friend to women,” has received violent threats for almost a year.

We don’t know which individual or entity will be the next unwilling star of a drama worthy of Netflix but all too real. Yet we can begin a discussion about what we can do about this situation in view of Trump’s impending ascent to the pinnacle of state power.

For starters, we need to be realistic. It’s time to drop any illusions that Trump will “pivot” to any semblance of conventional leadership behavior. He has trafficked in violent language since the inception of his campaign. He talked about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing any followers; he engaged in attacks on his opponent, Hillary Clinton, which included allusions to her assassination.

Nor should we expect Trump to stop his Tweet-attacks. Those unscripted and vindictive feeling-of-the-moment communications were crucial to his victory. Through his tweets, he forged a direct bond with Americans, who felt he was there with them at 3pm or 3am.

Knowing what to expect is the first line of defense. All businesses and organizations must plan for damage control and protection of their employees in the event they fall afoul of our President-elect. Large media companies, long his target, added measures such as security training for staff during the election campaign.

Trump has already gone after representatives of two pillars of our economy: big industry and union labor. The New York Police Department, for its part, has a new unit dealing with an upsurge in hate crimes.

While the temptation may be strong to choose the safety of quietness and passivity – to pressure our loved ones and employees to self-censure – it’s vital for our democracy to let our voices be heard when our moral compass tells us something is wrong.

The forceful government that Trump’s assembling can make that an intimidating prospect. Top-heavy with military men, it also includes several civilians (Steven Bannon and Andrew Puzder) who have been accused of sexual assault and/or domestic violence, starting with Trump himself. (All have denied wrongdoing.)

Yet we must never forget that Trump is one, and we are many. The latest Pew survey found that eight out of ten Americans (82%), including 76% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats, think Trump needs to exercise more caution in his communications. 65% judge him to be outright reckless.

And we must think outside the box. To have any impact on Trump, citizens have to approach those who can influence him. Sadly, that does not mean primarily your elected officials, because Trump has made it clear he respects few of them, including those of the Republican Party he used to get into power. “We’re not dealing with a five-star General,” Trump commented disparagingly of Republican National Convention Chairman Reince Priebus (his future Chief of Staff) back in July.

So tell those Generals that Trump admires what you think about Trump’s behavior. These men know well that much of it would not be tolerated in any branch of the Armed Forces. They also know that it’s hardly in America’s interest to have the Commander in Chief targeting ordinary, law-abiding individuals for attacks. It makes him look distracted and weak, endangering our national security.

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We can also enable the immense power of education. Trump offers a golden opportunity for teachers, religious leaders, and community activists to inform about the responsibilities that come with power and a public platform. Words have consequences, on the schoolyard or in the White House.

Trump’s been reaching out to his critics to insult and humiliate them for decades. The private nature of those communications meant their consequences were relatively contained.

Now Trump broadcasts his personal insults to millions, and some who hear and read him likely see themselves as bound to act on his behalf. In time, some of those men and women will come to see that they’ve been misled. It’s up to us to find the courage to speak our truth and help them along, to avoid waking up one day in the midst of an American tragedy.