Many observers, with good cause, have decried Donald Trump’s vicious attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar and her fellow progressive congresswomen of color and the frightening chants—“Send her home!”—his fanatical followers in North Carolina started up all on their own, responding to Trump’s vituperation about Omar, as nakedly racist, not to mention dangerous. Many have remarked on the fascism dripping from every word, and suggested that what we saw Wednesday in Greenville was a new Nuremberg, Trump’s feeble denials notwithstanding.
If anyone needed further evidence that Trump is now America’s eliminationist-in-chief, the frenzied crowd delivered it in spades.
But listen carefully to the language being used by Trump and his defenders to rationalize their words. It is language with a very familiar ring: The language of community defense and purification, driving from the body politic any foreign—and therefore innately toxic—presence or influence. The language of heroic willingness to sever the Gordian knot and do “what needs to be done” to protect the community, or in this case the nation, or indeed Western civilization itself.
It is the language of hate crimes, used by their perpetrators to rationalize their deeds.
Even before the chant, it was fascinating to watch Trump’s defenders in the wake of the nakedly eliminationist “go back where they came from” tweets that inspired the chant. There was Sen. Lindsay Graham, justifying the tweets to the hosts on Fox & Friends by suggesting that people like these members of Congress deserve to be ejected from the country: “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists … they’re anti-Semitic. They’re anti-America.”
And then there was U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who tweeted on Monday along similar lines: “Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals.” (Special hypocrisy note: Daines employed a noted white nationalist named Taylor Rose as a campaign field organizer in Montana in his 2014 Senate campaign.)
Listen to the words Trump used in Greenville to attack Rep. Omar just before the chant broke out:\
I mean think of that one, and she looks down with contempt on the hardworking American, saying that ignorance is pervasive in many parts of this country. And obviously and importantly, Omar has a history of launching vicious antisemitic screeds.
After the chant, he continued with similar language in attacking Omar’s colleague, Rep. Rita Tlaib:
And Tlaib also used the F word to describe the presidency and your president. That’s not nice, even for me. She was describing the President of the United States and the presidency with the big fat vicious, the way she said it, vicious F-word. That’s not somebody that loves our country.
This is how violence against both nonwhites and political dissenters has been justified by the mainstream American Right for centuries: If you disagree, you hate the country, and thus deserve ejection or elimination. This is why “go back where you came from” is a favorite phrase both of hate-crimes perpetrators and violent right-wing thugs like the Proud Boys.
Yet this was presented as a rational explanation by Trump’s defenders: “The president clarified in there what he was talking about: a love of the country. And if you don’t love the country, leave the country,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told the press.
New York Post columnist Sohrab Ahmari hated the chants but then embraced the underlying sentiments:
Needless to say, the “send-her-back” chants are gross. But again, with remarks like these, and many other of the kind, she has signaled radical hostility to her adopted homeland and the West — i.e., a total departure from the political community.
Beneath the pseudo-logical veneer, there is a frightening undercurrent running through all of this talk.
The problem is much deeper than the naked discrimination and intolerance on display: This is language that will be used to justify violence. It will almost certainly inspire a fresh wave of racial sectarian violence in the form of hate crimes and right-wing extremist domestic terrorism, because it is the very same language that is used by the perpetrators of these crimes to justify their acts.
The criminologists and social scientists who study hate crimes have parsed the motivations behind such acts into four different but related kinds: thrill-seeking, “defensive,” retributive (or revenge crimes), and “mission” crimes (perpetrated by committed ideologues intent on striking a blow on behalf of their cause).
By far the largest of these categories is the “defensive” kind of motive, in which perpetrators see themselves as heroes who are out to save their communities and the nation as well. One study found that this category of motive had become dominant in hate crimes after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—and that hate crimes were likely to spike when “when a particular group is regarded as representing a danger to the dominant group’s prestige, wealth, or power.”
“Dylann Roof [who murdered nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston, S.C, in June 2015] thought he was saving the world,” said Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They’ve come to believe they’re saviors of the white race. … I’m doing this to protect my race.”
In “defensive” hate crimes, perpetrators see themselves as heroic protectors of their communities: their neighborhoods, their workplace, their religion, their country, their race. These “defenders’ often target specific victims, justifying their crimes as necessary to fend off perceived threats. Particular events such as the arrival or a Muslim or a black family in a previously all-white neighborhood can act as the spark for such crimes.
Both while in the act and afterward, especially when caught and charged with bias crimes, these perpetrators defend themselves by using the language of community defense. They show little to no remorse for their crimes, and usually insist that they are acting on the unspoken wishes of the majority of people in the community, which is too afraid to act. Even non-defender types of perpetrators—particularly “mission” and retributive criminals—employ this kind of rhetoric to explain their actions.
“They honestly believe that what they’re doing has some sort of communal assent,” says Brian Levin, who leads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
This is where the role played by Donald Trump becomes crucial: Rather than acting as a lever to discourage such acts, Trump clearly has encouraged them with both his rhetoric and his actions. This has led to what has been called the “Trump Effect,” in which outbreaks of bigoted crimes and incidents are directly linked to the president’s outbursts in speeches and on Twitter.
This effect was first marked in the month immediately following Trump’s election in November 2016. Levin’s team as CSUSB assembled hate-crimes data from 38 jurisdictions and found the effect was unmistakable: “racial hate crime according to FBI data surged during November 2016, and in particular on the day after the election, rising from 10 to 27. Our analysis of the same FBI data set further revealed November was the worst month—with 735 hate crimes—since 2007 and the worst November going back to 1992, when systemic national record keeping began. Further, we found that hate crimes more than doubled, from 17 to 42, the day after the election and that a 72 percent average daily spike occurred in the two weeks following the election compared to before.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded a similar phenomenon:
To the contrary, in the first 34 days after the election, the SPLC documented 1,094 bias-related incidents and found that 37% of them directly referenced Trump, his campaign slogans or his notorious comments about sexual assault. Not every incident met the definition of a hate crime, but many did. The FBI later confirmed the sharp uptick in reported hate crimes in the fourth quarter of 2016. Researchers have shown that reported hate crimes following Trump’s election made up the second largest surge since the FBI began collecting data in 1992 (trailing only the increase after the 9/11 terror attacks).
Another study found that not only is there a demonstrable “Trump Effect” arising from his rhetoric, the effect is substantially broadened and deepened by the fact of his winning the 2016 election:
Using time series analysis, we show that Donald Trump’s election in November of 2016 was associated with a statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes across the United States, even when controlling for alternative explanations. Further, by using panel regression techniques, we show that counties that voted for President Trump by the widest margins in the presidential election also experienced the largest increases in reported hate crimes. … We hypothesize that it was not just Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric throughout the political campaign that caused hate crimes to increase. Rather, we argue that it was Trump’s subsequent election as President of the United States that validated this rhetoric in the eyes of perpetrators and fueled the hate crime surge.
More pointedly, there has been a sharp spike in hate crimes (226 percent) in counties where Trump has held his political rallies, which feature his frequently eliminationist and threatening speeches. As its authors note, “Recent research also shows that reading or hearing Trump’s statements of bias against particular groups makes people more likely to write offensive things about the groups he targets.”
All this bodes ill for the coming 2020 presidential campaign. If Trump continues to wage his culture war against nonwhites and the liberals who defend them, the Trump Effect is certain to surge along with it—and so will the hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism that ride in its wake.