The Short Fuse: Autocrats, Hate Speech and Political Violence

When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It took three and a half years into his presidency, but Twitter finally flagged one of President Donald Trump’s tweets as a rules violation for explicitly glorifying violence. The tweet, which alluded to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, followed the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and numerous other Black Americans by the police. In the face of these protests, Trump has largely responded by employing rhetoric laced with racist dog whistles, appeals to White supremacy, and calls for state repression to crush civil society activism.

This response is not new. Trump has a long history of divisive and racist speech. Talking about the violence surrounding the 2017 “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, he referred to “very fine people, on both sides,” essentially equating racists chanting anti-semitic slogans with those people standing against them. In the wake of the 2020 BLM demonstrations, he has referred to peaceful protestors as “terrorists” and “thugs.” And at times Trump has blatantly supported violence and racism, such as when he retweeted a video of a supporter who says that “… the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” or another video of a supporter chanting “White power.”

Trump’s tweets are often shots of concentrated fury, blustery bravado, and unhinged alarmism, emphatic in their demand to be accepted as truth even while trafficking in lies, ignorance and conspiracy. They are part of a political gambit of governing through divisiveness, that Jeffrey Smith and Richard Ashby Wilson argue entail dangerous potential consequences of political violence in the United States in a recent Just Security article. They also reflect a larger pattern of right-wing authoritarian hate rhetoric and the erosion of the rule of law in many democracies around the globe, including Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey.

Why It Matters

There is now a significant body of research showing how dehumanizing discourse contributes to violence, especially when espoused by political leaders and other authority figures. This kind of speech has several political and psychological functions. In essence, it:

  1. Reinforces a particular ingroup identity as representative of the “authentic” political community to be privileged and protected.
  2. Projects a dangerous “other,” or outgroup, that threatens the interests and survival of the ingroup.
  3. Posits the need for a decisive and powerful savior unfettered by legal constraints or norms of deliberation and compromise.
  4. Finally, legitimizes actual violence committed against the other as permissible or even necessary to protect the ingroup.

This style of rhetoric endangers vulnerable populations, turns opponents into enemies, and encourages collective moral disengagement from the targeted group. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has referred to indigenous Brazilians as less than human and praised the genocide of indigenous groups in the United States, while calling for criminals to “die in the streets like cockroaches.” When authority figures equate groups of people to “thugs” or animals that need to be controlled, or insects that need to be exterminated, the labeled groups can be morally excluded from the collective sense of justice and moral responsibility.

In the United States, Trump’s vitriolic language pivots on protecting a “real” America that is characterized as White, extremely conservative, and distinctly Christian. He also consistently claims that the country is under siege by a terrifying combination of Black and Brown people, White liberals and leftists, radicalized youth, “globalists” (a dog whistle for Jews), anarchists, Antifa, and even shadowy Deep State traitors. This in turn justifies the need for a strong man leader — “your president of law and order” — and violent reprisal to stop the threat, such as employing “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons,” celebrating the National Guard’s use of force as a “beautiful thing to watch,” and calling for insurrection against governors of the opposing party. When Trump stated in 2016, “I alone can fix it,” in reference to the purported dangers facing the country, he was drawing from a classic playbook of authoritarian leadership.

Speech and Violence

Dehumanizing rhetoric not only condones violence, it can also incite it. Trump’s rhetoric has led to an increase in hate crimes, with counties that voted for Trump by a wide margin demonstrating the largest increases in hate crimes since his election. Arguably, Trump’s role as president validated his violent rhetoric, thereby bolstering his supporters to commit prejudice-fueled violence.

This violent and racist discourse has echoes in many parts of the world, as right-wing strongmen have taken power in democracies on xenophobic and violent political platforms. Bolsonaro has spoken of the need to protect the true white Christian identity of the country, and expressed empathy for murderous police who have “violent emotions.” Perhaps most alarmingly, he is an enthusiastic supporter of the country’s previous military dictatorship that was responsible for massive human rights violations, and frequently speaks of the need for domestic military intervention today.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has positioned himself as defender of public order, favorably comparing himself to Adolf Hitler as the only bulwark against the collapse of Filipino society. He has openly encouraged extrajudicial executions and assassination, threatened martial law, and carried out a brutal anti-drug campaign that has killed thousands (if not tens of thousands) of civilians.

Similar hate speech has been used in Turkey and Hungary. All of these leaders regularly deploy highly exclusivist conceptions of national identity, relentlessly target opponents as existential threats, justify the need for an autocratic savior, and legitimize the use of force to achieve their ends.

While ongoing human rights violations in countries such as Brazil, the Philippines and the United States are already worthy of condemnation and redress, history also teaches us that things can get much, much worse. From the Holocaust, to Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia, the Rwandan Genocide, atrocities in the Balkans, and the ongoing violence being perpetrated against Rohingya and other minority populations in Myanmar, the circulation of hate speech has been an integral component of many of recent history’s most devastating instances of genocide and mass atrocity.

To be sure, hateful speech does not necessarily lead directly to violence. There are a number of general factors that make large-scale violence more likely, including a history of unpunished violence against vulnerable minorities, severe crises and political instability, the spread of extremist ideologies, deep social divisions, state-led discrimination, and the erosion of the rule of law and government accountability. Of course, worryingly, some of these other factors (e.g. a long history of unpunished violence against Black Americans) have long-existed in the United States, while others have recently become more salient (e.g. the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the rule of law). When these general conditions hold, hateful discourse can serve as the spark for an already volatile situation and can validate violence against an already dehumanized outgroup. This discourse authorizes, if not encourages, violent behavior against vulnerable civilians and delegitimizes calls for justice and accountability.

What Do We Do?

How should we respond to such pervasive and powerful language, especially when it emanates from the president? It is difficult to generalize across countries with different histories of violence and hateful rhetoric, but we can identify some short-term and long-term strategies for reducing hate speech and avoiding political violence:

  1. Pressure social media giants. Social media platforms have been instrumental in spreading hate speech, but they can also promote voices and movements that have been marginalized in society. There are a variety of ways of responding to hate speech, as the European Union has shown.
  2. Mobilize, mobilize, mobilize. Civil society groups play an integral role in pressuring government leaders to change policies. The key is to create broad alliances across different constituencies that can work to pressure political leaders, especially those in vulnerable electoral districts.
  3. Support candidates and government officials with pro-justice platforms and policies that go beyond surface-level promises of tolerance and empathy to addressing systemic sources of racism, including its economic, legal and cultural roots.
  4. Demilitarize the police. Control the security forces and strengthen the rule of law. There must be clear, enforceable measures of transparency and accountability, and where appropriate reductions in security force size and scope of activity.
  5. Develop knowledge and practical education in peacebuilding and anti-racist activism, from national to local levels. This entails expanding conflict transformation training and restorative justice programs that promote prosocial behavior and norms.
  6. Adopt clear counter-narratives, strategies and goals for long term social change. Oppositional strategic messaging must simultaneously condemn and resist hateful speech and state repression, and it must provide an alternative narrative of collective identity that is inclusive, respectful of difference, and based in justice. Critique is an important first step, but change requires framing an alternative vision of society, identifying specific objectives, and laying out practical strategies moving forward.

It is not enough to counter hate speech. The goal should not be to return to the prior status quo, which is itself often the source of injustice, but instead to work toward societal change to address the deep roots of structural violence. This will be a disruptive, uncomfortable and long term effort requiring a movement of movements, but it is necessary to move beyond superficial racial empathy and allyship, as Roxane Gay has pointed out.

To understand this strange fruit, then, we must examine its deep roots and commit to a ground-up transformation that includes multiple public and private players. It took three and a half years into his presidency for Twitter to flag one of Trump’s tweets as a rules violation. How much damage was done during that time?

Image: A notification from Twitter appears on a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump that the social media platform says violated its policy on May 29, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. Twitter has started to flag some of President Trump’s tweets that violate the company’s terms. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Ernesto Verdeja

Ernesto Verdeja is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter (@ErnestoVerdeja).

Bettina Spencer

Bettina Spencer is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. Follow her on Twitter (@BettinaSpence19).