Salon: How to understand Donald Trump's incendiary language — and how to combat it

This is an excerpt of an op-ed by Helio Fred Garcia, published in Salon on June 22, 2020.

Donald Trump's tweet the week before last that the 75-year old man who was shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo and wound up in the intensive care unit "could be an ANTIFA provocateur" was just one latest example of Trump's use of language to demonize others.

His call a week earlier that "when the looting starts the shooting starts" not merely glorifies violence, as Twitter noted. It predictably creates conditions that lead to violence.

It is all part of a predictable pattern. I am a communication and leadership professor and have spent the last 18 months carefully studying Trump's language in preparing for a forthcoming book. I have documented 12 kinds of communication that have historically preceded acts of violence against groups, critics or rivals — and that have led to civil unrest. Trump uses all 12 forms. These include: 

  • Dehumanizing a group: He dehumanizes groups: Mexicans, Muslims, migrants. He calls them animals and says their presence among us is an "infestation."

  • Demonizing a rival or critic: He tells four congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from; all are American citizens, and three were born in this country. He says those congresswomen are not capable of loving America. He refutes the legitimacy of a sitting president, and says the speaker of the House wants terrorists, drug kingpins and human traffickers to enter the country to wreak havoc.

  • Severely exaggerating risk: He inflates a relatively harmless event — a scraggly group of impoverished migrants walking thousands of miles to seek legal asylum — and calls it a "caravan" or an "invasion," funded by mysterious sources, infiltrated by dangerous people, worthy of mobilizing the military.

Trump's call for mobilizing the active duty military to respond to civil unrest is an escalation of this third form of language that provokes violence.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide defines "dangerous speech" as speech that, under the right conditions, can influence people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group. Trump's language has that effect.

Read the full op-ed here.

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