When a leader is not a leader for all, are they leading against someone?

A cartoon of Donald Trump holding a phone with Twitter open, being shushed by Martin Luther King Jr.

29th May 2020

Watson Mere

I do not write this out of anything but anger. I try not to judge political discourse based on single events, often by trusting that leaders are not always directly responsible for the actions of the people they represent. I hold on to the idea that it is not possible for single leaders to resemble the intrinsic nature of entire societies… Or at least I used to. And then came Donald J. Trump.


I find no coincidence in the fact that the setbacks experienced over the course of the past 4 years of Donald Trump’s presidency, by movements like Black Lives Matter, heightened only five months before the United States presidential election. And I find no coincidence in this because I have seen what an election featuring Donald Trump can result in.


In 2016, the world witnessed not one but two campaigns that started to show warning signs. Back then, I was not weary of these campaigns because of who was running, or because of what those elections meant. What really worried me in 2016, and worries me even more now, is that I saw features of some dark periods of the political conjecture of the 20th century resurfacing. Electoral techniques that obscure the idea of a free and democratic process gained an accepted platform once again. The successful efforts led by the Republican Party in the United States and the Leave campaign in the United Kingdom came at a cost – they brought back features of a period where demagoguery and populism ruled; a period where the truth was malleable or as non-existent as Orwell warned it could be; a period where sentiment spoke higher than reason and where the ends justified the means.


The US presidential election of 2016 was a Pandora’s box and ever since Donald Trump took office, his presidency has coincided with a disturbing rise in indicators that can only translate to us as this: the United States is displaying more racist behaviour today than it was 5 years ago. Since 2016, there has been a 55% increase in white nationalist hate groups in the United States and the number of overall hate crimes committed rose 9% in 2018 to an all-time high. Although it might be hard to prove a direct causation between Donald Trump’s election and these figures, the correlation is implicit; and what I have come to know is that often in politics, “what it seems to be, it is”. I do not find surprising that a country that elected a leader known to be racist and xenophobic is now facing a rising development in white supremacy.


One might argue that this is a natural trend that would have occurred nonetheless – that Trump’s actions were not the direct cause of this hate because racism was already instilled in American society. Nonetheless, the fact is that while Barack Obama’s presidency saw the birth of #BlackLivesMatter and provided a favourable conjecture for its growth, the past four years of Donald Trump’s presidency saw an attempt at its oblivion.


From the start of his presidential campaign, Trump’s underlying racism was clear. In 2015, years after the world had moved on from the “birther” conspiracy theory that claimed Barack Obama was not a natural born US citizen, Donald Trump kept clinging to it and used it as a plank for his platform. The fight against illegal emigrants became a selling point for the Trump campaign and proposals along the lines of “making Mexico pay for a new border wall” or a ban on all Muslims entering the United States rapidly became worldwide known for their xenophobic character. In his very own campaign announcement, Trump had the audacity to call Mexican immigrants “rapists”, something he reiterated in the rallies held throughout the duration of his campaign.


While in office, Trump’s actions aligned with his early rhetoric. Following his victory, he appointed several individuals associated with white supremacist ideology to high positions in the White House and Federal Government. Steve Bannon, co-founder of the alt-right website Breitbart News, was appointed as White House Chief Strategist; Stephen Miller, who is known for having an “extensive history of racist comments and positions”, was selected to be Senior Advisor to the President; and Jeff Sessions, whose Senate confirmation was put at risk due to past racist behaviour, was nominated Attorney General.


During his presidency, Trump not only made no relevant efforts to condemn racist speech, as he himself promoted hate in his public platform. Just last year, a tweet by the President targeted four congresswomen of colour – Trump wrote that they should “go back [to their countries]”. The tweet received global media attention and even responses from foreign leaders due to its blatant xenophobic character.


Trump’s White House also produced and defended policy associated with disregarding or even targeting people of colour. In April 2019, Politico reported that the Administration would not “nominate anyone to serve on a UN committee on racism”, after preventing the re-nomination of the human rights lawyer chosen by Obama. The broadcast included a statement from the State Department official who had advanced the information: ”[the administration’s action] cements the narrative that the Americans just don’t care about these kinds of things anymore.”


In October 2019, the Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a rule that attempted to “dramatically change the standards by which a person or entity, including the federal government, can sue to end discriminatory housing practices”, threatening the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This case is particularly worrying considering that the Fair Housing Act was initially designed to combat discrimination and taking into account that it was the legislative response to the riots that originated upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This was one of many instances where Trump deliberately attempted at curbing progressive legal initiatives that are part of the fight against discrimination and racism in the US.


Donald Trump is a symptom of American racism; and a racist society can only be made worse through the legitimisation of its prejudice. A leader like Trump, who has made public racist remarks, who has had a long list of racist controversies, and whose campaign promises were based on a mix of xenophobia and populism, only furthers the white nationalist sentiment already present in the United States. Trump does not need to explicitly incentivise racism or white supremacy (although it could be argued that he does) – what Donald Trump is, what he has done, who he has empowered and what all of that represents is enough to legitimise groups whose beliefs align with his.


Warnings that Donald Trump is someone who would glorify and incentivise violence, like dictators have in the past and still do today, are legitimised by his very own tweets (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”; the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done, and that includes using the unlimited power of our Military”; “whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, they [the Secret Service] would quickly come down on them [the protesters], hard – didn’t know what hit them”). Donald Trump rallies people with emotion and misinformation, and he does this without equating the possible damage to the democratic process – populism and demagoguery do nothing but taint it. It is now clear to me that the way Trump’s re-election campaign will be conducted will be no different to what he did in the past. Red flags are at their highest the moment social media platforms have to censor the President of the United States because he has failed to pass fact-checks.


Social justice cannot be overlooked when voting for political candidates. The truth cannot be replaced by vague and populist statements intended at inciting the masses and fuelling hate. Hate, in turn, cannot be a political plank. A desire to win at all costs – that is what has led us to this sad moment. Just less than 4 years after the United States’ first black president leaves office, we come across a video of yet another white police officer murdering an unarmed, inoffensive African-American man. This was a moment that happened to be recorded and that echoed throughout the world as a much-needed wake-up call.


What happened to George Floyd was disgusting and outrageous. It filled me with anger and a thirst for social justice. This must end. The ends cannot justify the means, not in the 21st century; not in our democratic countries. Human rights cannot be discretionary or put in second place. Human rights cannot be an option. Donald Trump cannot be re-elected.


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