In November 2015, as Europeans were grappling with the shock of the Islamist terror attacks in the French capital Paris, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, published a cartoon in response to the events. It showed a group of people, most of them clearly Muslims – as indicated by the men’s beards and the veiled women – crossing the border of the European Union. A sign advertised the EU’s open borders and the free movement of people. At the people’s feet were rats jumping the border line in the shadow of the immigrants. The cartoon provoked outraged reactions, as it was undoubtedly meant to: it had connected the influx of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern war refugees into Europe that summer with a rising terrorist threat, and it had equated some of those border crossers to rodents. Perhaps the artist directed that comparison only at violent extremists, perhaps he did not. Either way, the cartoon’s appearance fit into a disturbing pattern. That April, controversial British columnist Katie Hopkins had published a particularly extreme opinion piece in the Sun tabloid on the topic of migrants. Parts of it read:
“No, I don’t care. Show me pictures of cofﬁns, show me bodies ﬂoating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad.
I still don’t care.
Because in the next minute you’ll show me pictures of aggressive young men at Calais, spreading like norovirus on a cruise ship.
Watching them try to clamber on to British lorries and steal their way into the UK, do I feel pity? Only for the British drivers, who get hit with a ﬁne every time one of this plague of feral humans ends up in their truck.”
Hopkins didn’t stop at comparing migrants to a virus and calling them a ‘plague of feral humans’. Later in the same text, she likened them to cockroaches.
The year after this, on the campaign trail of the US presidential election, Donald J. Trump – not known as a fan of poetry – repeatedly appropriated the text of Al Wilson’s 1968 song “The Snake” to equate Syrian refugees with a poisonous snake that, as the song describes, tricks a naive woman into giving her shelter just to poison her.
To students of history, the appearance of such language – referring to a group, in this case immigrants, as rodents, insects, deadly animals, stripping them of their humanity – was appalling. In 1930s Germany, Jews were depicted as rats in Nazi propaganda – propaganda that paved the way to the horrors that awaited Soviet soldiers when they stumbled over the extermination camps in Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945. In 1994, Rwanda’s Radio Television Mille Collines broadcast speeches describing the members of the country’s Tutsi ethnic group as, yes, cockroaches. In a few months of that summer, extremists of the Hutu tribe, fired up by the hate speech, slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsis, many with machetes and simple tools, until the entire country stank of dead bodies.
The heated debates Western countries lead about immigration, and the rise of far-right populism, from Hungary to the United Kingdom, from the United States to Italy, have shifted the boundaries of public discourse in these countries. The limits of what is acceptable seem to have shifted dramatically, previously accepted rules of conduct have been discarded. As hate goes mainstream, some of the pillars Western society is built on are threatened: the rule of law, democracy, pluralism, the dignity of the individual.
The politics of hurting others
In 2016, Americans had the choice between two different styles of politics. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was based on the slogan “Stronger Together”, it promoted unity and inclusiveness and built on what the American people have in common with each other. Donald Trump presented a different vision, a divisive one, that focused on all those intent on harming his core supporters: the Washington elites, the media, immigrants, America’s allies, Democrats, Muslims etc. etc. Without the existence of enemies that all of America’s problems – real or perceived – could be blamed on, Trump’s campaign would have had no driving motivator. And to become credible in his assault on the ‘establishment’, Trump had to work outside the limits of a respected politician, he had to become politically incorrect, he had to say what people wanted to hear. His supporters were happy to follow his path. If anyone wants to doubt that a large part of his campaign was based on stoking resentment, and that the feeling that his fans felt most passionately was hatred, then they should look at the “Trump that B*tch” shirts, the chants of “Lock her up”, the violent assaults on liberal activists trying to disrupt Trump rallies. Trump played along: he wanted to punch a protester in the face, he fantasized about him being carried out on a stretcher. In March 2016, in St. Louis, Missouri, he stated:
“You know, part of the problem, and part of the reason it takes so long, is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right? And they’re being politically correct the way they take them out, so it takes a little bit longer.”
On November 8 of that year, 62,984,825 Americans cast their votes to make Donald J. Trump the 45th President of the United States.
Enemies of the people
Office has not proved a moderating force on Donald Trump. In fact, one of the patterns of behaviour that emerged during the campaign and which continues after his inauguration is the attempt to delegitimize the processes and institutions of American democracy. A month before election day, candidate Trump claimed that the election may be ‘rigged’ against him – without offering specifics. From a few weeks after the election up until his first few months in office, he claimed – again contrary to all available evidence – that millions of illegal immigrants had voted in the presidential election and thus boosted Hillary Clinton’s popular vote count, which topped his by just under three million. (It is a fine irony of history that these days, the efforts by the Russian government to rig that election for Donald Trump are becoming clearer and clearer.)
Trump has not only attempted to undermine faith in the U.S. electoral process. Just as frequent were his attacks on the judicial system, whose independence from the executive is one of the most elementary features of democracy. After a judge on the Ninth Circuit’s District Court, in San Francisco, blocked a Trump executive order on immigration, the president let it be known that there were proposals to ‘break up’ the Ninth Circuit, and he was receptive to that idea.
A favourite target of Trump, however, is the press. Like the separation of powers, the freedom of the press to report on what the government is doing and to hold power to account is vital to a healthy, functioning democracy – yet Trump has referred to them as “enemies of the people”, banned reporters of outlets such as CNN from attending government press events, and instead appeared mainly on channels that do not criticize him, such as Fox News. The press has so far been brave in its defiance of harassment from the nation’s highest office, yet many Americans seem to listen to their president.
Such open disdain for established institutions of a free society is not limited to the US, however. In Germany, supporters of the far-right street movement Pegida and the anti-immigrant party AfD frequently talk refer to the media as the ‘lying press’, and smear the German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a dictator or traitor. The UK’s Daily Mail, which has appeared before in this text, once referred to judges who had handed down a ruling on parliament’s rights to decide over Brexit as “enemies of the people” – in capital letters, on its front page.
“Them” and “us”
Attacking the media and the courts is one thing. And while it is certainly very troubling to see the most important institutions of an open society being targeted, at least they are powerful enough to stand up for themselves. It’s another thing when the same venom is used to single out those who are already vulnerable. Which brings us back to cockroaches, snakes, and rats. The brand of right-wing populism that is becoming a dominant force in Western politics thrives off of talking about the complex issues of migration and refugee flows in a globalized world in a simplifying, incendiary manner. Immigrants and those seeking asylum are likened to animals, or, in another set of often-used metaphors, to natural disasters: swarms, floods, waves, tides of people arriving. Yes, there have been nasty debates in many countries about foreigners and immigration before. But rarely ever in the post-World War 2 world has hatred been so mainstream. The Trumps and Farages and Le Pens divide the world into a “them” and an “us”, “ins” and “outs”. They stoke fear. They dehumanize, they abstract human beings to identical masses, they turn them into natural disasters. In the Brexit campaign, a trek of desperate, exhausted migrants on the move became a prop for far-right politician Nigel Farage, exploited for a poster under the heading “Breaking Point”. Of course, any society can – and should – debate openly about the benefits and costs of immigration. But demonizing certain groups and playing on people’s fears and prejudices has little to do with responsible, honest debate.
Words are bullets
The demagogues of our time and their supporters/enablers/apologists frequently offer a simple defense to charges that they are spreading hatred: “it’s just words, folks”, to quote Donald Trump. “He doesn’t actually mean it”. “He’s not actually going to do that”. Comments about groping women are just “locker room talk”. And so on and so forth. But that’s the problem: it is just words, but those words cause actual harm. Especially when they are uttered by people with a platform, whose voice is heard by millions. Violent language often precedes, legitimizes and inspires actual violence.
Shortly before 1pm on Thursday, 16 June 2016, the British Labour member of parliament Jo Cox was stabbed by a 51-year-old man in her West Yorkshire electoral district. Early reports suggested the man had yelled “Britain First” as he murdered the politician. Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster had been unveiled two hours before. The weeks after the Brexit vote saw an increase in reported cases of ethnic or racial discrimination. This June, a research paper by academics at the University of Warwick suggested a link between anti-Islam tweets by Donald Trump and a subsequent increase in attacks on Muslims. In Germany, the massive numbers of refugees entering the country throughout 2015 were accompanied by a spike in hate crimes targeting asylum seekers. As the debate has lost some of its fire, the number of attacks on refugees has dropped, although it remains at worrying levels: 3500 in all of 2016, 2200 in the entire last year and around 700 for the first half of 2018. In Italy, the first two months of the populist/far-right coalition under Prime Minister Conte and the vehemently anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini proceeded as a number of high-profile crimes motivated by racism and hatred of foreigners were committed. An Italian journalists counted a total of 33 such incidents between the new government’s inauguration on June 1 and July 31st.
Of course, no direct line can be drawn which would connect the American, Italian, German, French or British far-right leaders to individual hate crimes. But there is a striking link between hateful rhetoric becoming dominant in public discourse and the number of attacks on foreigners and ethnic minorities. The arsonists of language, the Trumps, Le Pens and Salvinis, do bear responsibility – not for individual crimes committed by others, but for creating a climate in which such violence suddenly seems justifiable, legitimate.
The new normal
Public discourse in many Western democracies has become toxic. The rhetoric is vile and abusive, and those who most suffer from this development are groups already marginalised: ethnic minorities, immigrants, refugees. Those who are visibly different from the majority are particularly vulnerable, and in these times they are singled out most frequently.
This article was already in its late stages of writing when Donald Trump used Twitter to attack Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former White House staffer currently promoting a book about her time working for him, calling her, among other things, a ‘dog’ – an insult all the more disturbing and offensive as it was aimed at an African-American woman. The media seized on it, but the formal language of journalism could not fully describe just how much of a shocker this one was. CNN characterized it as “at best a sharp departure from the language typically employed by Presidents and at worst a reference that traffics in sexual and racial imagery”. The Washington Post accurately noted that “History is replete with authoritarian leaders who have sought to dehumanize individuals or groups of people by calling them animals.”, while the New York Times concluded that the President “made clear that he has no intention of moderating his language when he feels under attack, regardless of the criticism that he gets for breaching the comity that normally accompanies the office of the president”. The insult was noted as being extraordinarily vicious even for Donald Trump’s standards. Reading the newspaper articles about incidents like these can leave one with the feeling that those who wrote these lines struggled to package their shock at the President’s words in the language of reporting. This is the new, disgusting, bizarre, horrifying normal. Trump and his mirror images in other countries have shifted and broken the rules that traditionally govern debate. They have destroyed civility. They have embraced demagogy. It is impossible to overstate how much of a danger this is to democracy. Classifying critics as public enemies, using dehumanizing language, encouraging acts of violence, singling out vulnerable groups as targets of hate and undermining democratic institutions – this is what fascism sounds like. It’s time to resist. It’s time to speak up.
Image source: Ted Eytan (Flickr) under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license, available under https://www.flickr.com/photos/taedc/30840280412. License available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/