Donald Trump’s refusal to unequivocably condemn white supremacists who support him, his talk of violence and attacks on the free press, and the suggestion from his ex-lawyer that he will not give up the White House if he loses the 2020 election are all warning signs that democracy itself is in danger in the US, writes former First Minister Henry McLeish.
Policy failures, Congressional defeats, House investigations, Republicans rebelling, court hearings and further revelations about his personal life have contributed to the most damaging week of Donald Trump’s Presidency: and a blizzard of indictments, subpoenas and charges – and the Mueller report still to come!
Over-shadowing this mess has been Trump’s inability or unwillingness to distance himself from white nationalists or white supremacists or to suppress his rhetoric around inciting violence and emboldening those with racist and anti-Muslim views.
After the tragic and senseless massacre of 50 Muslims, with many more injured, in two mosques in New Zealand, Trump tweeted his condolences to the victims and offered America’s solidarity, but it took 11 hours, lacked empathy and made no mention of white terrorism, racism or Islamophobia.
Later, at a press conference in the Oval Office, when asked if he sees a rise in white nationalism, he said: “I don’t really, I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
This is a telling remark. For the President, white-nationalist killers are always described as having problems or being mentally ill, but people of colour, race or religion, especially Muslims, who kill, are always described as terrorists and extremists.
Though not the world’s most gifted wordsmith, his rhetoric has merely confirmed to a worldwide audience that Trump gives succour to the likes of Brenton Tarrant, the suspect in the mass shooting in Christchurch, a self-styled fascist and racist. A 76-page hate-filled rant, believed to have been written by the alleged killer, praised Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.
After violent clashes between far-right protesters, who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and Nazi slogans like “blood and soil”, and counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, where one of the latter was murdered, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides”. He has also said Mexicans “are rapists” and some African countries are “sh**holes”.
Does Trump believe he is the protector of white Christian America? Are his remarks racially insensitive or much worse? Is the 45th President a racist and a white supremacist?
Regardless of the real nature and intent of his rhetoric, he is creating a threatening and intimidating atmosphere in America by stirring up hate, violence and Islamophobia. His barely concealed tolerance of white nationalism is new and dangerous and there is little doubt that this narrative is taking America down a very dangerous path.
Trump’s authoritarian views were evident in his comments to Breitbart news last week, when he said: “You know the left plays a tougher game ... I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
This is either an uncontrollable mouth, messing with people’s minds or a direct and violent threat to those who support the Democrats.
His former attorney Michael Cohen, giving evidence to Congress, suggested Trump might not allow his successor to peacefully take control of the White House if he loses the 2020 election.
“Given my experience working for Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” he said.
Such remarkable comments are chillingly consistent with Trump’s rhetoric, his increasing talk of violence and his failure to unequivocally denounce white nationalism and far-right terrorism.
America has had endless wake-up calls but on too many occasions the media and progressive politicians have remained focused on Trump the “f***ing moron”, the “mutant” or the “man with no moral compass”. There is a danger that the real threats to the country, especially to minorities, are being missed and pundits are not joining the dots.
Trump’s Presidency raises the question of whether democracy itself is in danger in the US. In his book, How Democracies Die, Harvard professor Steven Levitsky argued: “Democracy no longer ends with a bang – in a military coup – but with a whimper; the slow steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms.”
The author talks about the health of democratic institutions and identifies four markers: rejecting or showing weak commitment to democratic rules; denying the legitimacy of political opponents; encouraging or tolerating violence; and a readiness to stifle or limit civil liberties of opponents, including media. Trump ticks all the boxes!
Sadly the Republican party is doing nothing to stop the erosion of US democracy. Because of Trump’s bullying, intimidation and threats to their political futures, the myth of his infallibility and the possible fear of revenge from his base, the Republicans remain silent. Defeats for Trump in both the Senate and the House this week are the first signs of revolt from Republicans and possibly an indication of more trouble ahead for Trump.
For those who find it hard to equate America with violence and hate, there are two very significant factors to bear in mind. The US has a propensity for crime and violence. This is the background against which to view the rhetoric of the President.
America is the only country in the West with the death penalty. The incarceration rate for offenders is off the scale with over two million people in prison – the US has the highest rates per 100,000 population in the world. With five per cent of the world’s population, the US has 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners.
Over 300 million guns exist in private ownership. Right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 murders last year, the number of hate groups rose to over 1,000 and most terrorist attacks were thought to be motivated by right-wing ideologies. This is not a country that needs a President who is soft on white terror and racism.
The changing demographics and the white/minority balance are the second significant challenge for both sides of the political divide. The Brookings Institution, in a report called “A pivotal period for race in America”, produced some remarkable findings based US censuses and Census Bureau projections.
It showed that in 1970, the population of 205 million was 83 per cent white and 17 per cent minority. In 2020, the population of 335 million will be 60 per cent white and 40 per cent minority. And in 2050, the population of 395 million will be 48 per cent white and 52 per cent minority.
By 2050, the US will be a white minority nation, a prospect that is already instilling fear in some Americans.
Trump could carry on exploiting that fear and turn America into a battlefield. Alternatively, the Republican party and US voters could embrace the vision of “One America”, remembering that they are all immigrants.
The Washington Post captured the mood when it warned that “Trump is the President the founding fathers feared”.