This is an excerpt from a Daily Kos column, originally published on March 23, 2020.
Today the New York Times is reporting about how Asians and Asian-Americas in this country are subjected to increased hostility, incivility, and violence because of President Trump’s persistent use of the phrases “China Virus” and “Chinese Virus” for COVID-19.
I have been studying this phenomenon for a long time, and it follows a pattern. I write about the pattern and what engaged citizens can do about it in my forthcoming book, Words on Fire.
Provoking Hate Crimes
Trump announced his campaign by saying that Mexico intentionally sends dangerous people to the U.S.: criminals, drug smugglers, rapists. He pounded this theme persistently throughout the campaign. As president he called refugees seeking asylum an invasion and mobilized the military (even though under U.S. law the military is not allowed to engage in law enforcement or immigration enforcement. Also, he sent most of the military to Texas, even though the so-called caravan that required such mobilization was still a thousand miles from the border, and heading to San Diego).
One of the effects of Trump’s language was that people who otherwise would resist the temptation to insult, confront, or commit acts of violence became less inhibited. With this disinhibition the incidence of hate crimes against people perceived to be Mexican or Hispanic rose significantly, starting in 2015.
According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, the targeting of Latino communities was on the rise:
“Hate incidents targeting Latinos and immigrants often go beyond name-calling and intimidation. Victims and advocates also say they are too often the targets of assault, robberies and even murder.…‘In immigrant communities, the fear is palpable,’ said Monica Bauer, director of Hispanic affairs at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). ‘It’s so much fear that I think the word doesn’t really convey. It’s almost terrified, like it’s beyond fear. It’s paralyzing fear.’”
One example. About six weeks after Trump began the campaign by saying Mexicans are rapists, two brothers in Boston, ages thirty and thirty-eight, came upon a homeless man sleeping in a subway station. They urinated on him. As he woke up, they kicked and punched him, and one of the brothers repeatedly hit him with a metal pole. They then walked away laughing.They were soon arrested and told the police that they had targeted the man because they thought he was an illegal immigrant. One of them told the police,
“Donald Trump was right. All of these illegals need to be deported.”
In fact, the victim was a legal permanent resident. The older brother was sentenced to three years in prison; the younger to a year and a half.
Total and Complete Ban
Trump also called for a total and complete ban on Muslims entering the United States. He also said,
“I’m putting people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, they’re going back! They could be ISIS.…This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army maybe, or if you said 50,000 or 80,000 or 100,000, we got problems and that could be possible. I don’t know that it is, but it could be possible so they’re going back—they’re going back.
This is a common pattern in Trump’s language: he identifies a genuinely dangerous group or individual, and then generalizes them to an entire population. Here, he invoked ISIS, a terrorist organization responsible for killing thousands and creating havoc that led to the Syrian refugee crisis. But he conflates those fleeing ISIS with ISIS itself, noting that perhaps upward of 200,000 ISIS soldiers may be infiltrating the country. He did the same with Mexicans.
In my book I call this a lone-wolf whistle. Like a dog whistle, it signals to some people a sinister meaning. Those who hear the signal generalize it to a wider universe of people. And some commit lone-wolf whistle violence.
Trump falsely told George Stephanopoulos that 25 percent of Muslims in America believe that violence against the United States is justified. He also said,
“We have to look at people, we have to use vigilance in our country, or we’re going to have many more World Trade Centers and our country will never be the same. We will have many, many more World Trade Centers as sure as you’re sitting there. Our country will never be the same.”
Indeed, the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim. However, they did not commit their acts of terror because of their religion but because they were terrorists. In fact, more Muslims than Christians have been killed by Al Qaeda and ISIS. Saying all Muslims are or could be terrorists because the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim is the equivalent of saying that all Christians are or could be terrorists because Timothy McVeigh was Christian. McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people in what was until 9/11 the worst terrorist attack in American history.