In the past two weeks, both the New York Times and The Washington Post have published stories dissecting Donald Trump's public comments. Both described Trump's campaign as an operation trafficking in hate. It's a campaign making intentional use of so-called "politically incorrect" commentary to arouse white voters' anxieties and frustrations for political gain or distract those same voters are pivotal moments.
And this week, from Politico, came news that avowed white supremacist groups are experiencing a surge in website traffic and other signs of growing public interest. It was, to say the least, an eyebrow-raising claim.
But The Fix wondered if, in the attempt to describe a range of political events, comments and proposals that have shocked even long-time presidential election watchers, political insiders might be drawing a highly similar but excessively dramatic set of conclusions.
So, The Fix thought it might be wise to check in with an expert. This time, the context our expert provides may itself frighten you. You have been warned.
Michael Waltman is an associate professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of "Hate on the Right: Right Wing Political Groups and Hate Speech" published this year. In 2011, a book he co-authored with John Haas, "The Communication of Hate," also hit bookstores. Waltman's research centers on the way that hate can be an effective tool when used to pursue a variety of social and personal goals.
THE FIX: I think it might be helpful to define some things for readers. What is hate speech? Is there a way to reliably identify it -- something that defines it or sets it apart from other efforts to express one's ideas?
WALTMAN: Hate speech is discourse designed to attack, demean, dehumanize a specific person (or group) based on that persons group membership (identity). We typically expect a group identity to be based on a person’s religion, ethnicity, race, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. It is not unusual for someone to pursue persuasive, social or political goal(s) by manipulating people’s hatred of a group. This is hate speech.
Sometimes politicians attack their opponents in rather vicious ways. When they attack their opponents for supporting hated groups, this too is hate speech. Anders Brevik killed left-wing politicians and their children in Norway because their policies supported immigrants to Norway who were not fundamentally European or Christian. His ethno-violence was motivated by literature (hate speech) he had collected from America and elsewhere.
THE FIX: Have you seen or heard anyone abuse or extend the hate speech label to places that it shouldn't be this year?
WALTMAN: This has not been a specific focus of my own research, but I’m aware that some politicians have accused others of engaging in hate speech against them for their political ideas. Criticism of ideas is not hate speech.
In this country, free speech is a fundamental right. That, of course, means that Americans have always been exposed to all kinds of ideas. So, should we really be particularly concerned about what is being said or expressed publicly right now?
Hate speech is protected speech, and it should be. The answer to hate speech is more speech. Clumsy as it might be, the answer to hate speech is anti-hate speech, speech that is designed to protect vulnerable [groups] that have typically been attacked in communities because they have been stigmatized. The answer to hate speech is discourse that values and respects social differences.
We should also be very concerned about what is being expressed publicly right now. Donald Trump is only the most recent politician who has demeaned a specific group to win votes or political support. He demeaned undocumented Mexican workers and we saw evidence of a reporter for Univision being told to get out of America [Editor's Note: A Trump supporter repeatedly told Univision anchor, Jorge Ramos, to "get out of my country,"outside of a Trump news conference from which Trump asked his security to remove Ramos. A Trump staffer later came out into the hall and invited Ramos to return to the news conference. Ramos returned and asked a series of questions. See the video and links below.]. We have seen Trump protesters being attacked after he produced hateful remarks. If we look back at instances of hate crime and ethno-violence against Central and South American undocumented workers, we usually find that this violence was preceded by hateful public speech that stigmatized those identities [groups] and legitimized violence against them.
Attacks against those who are different increased following 9/11. Americans originally from countries like India were killed because they looked to some Americans like those who attacked us.
The FIX: Is the "mainstreaming" of hate speech a real thing, something that happens or has happened before? I think most Americans assume that objectionable ideas about, say, racial, ethnic or religious groups were at some point mainstream then, come to be understood as inaccurate and/or offensive and then live only in the extremist fringes or in the minds of everyone's old uncle.
WALTMAN: The American hate movement does serve as a kind of foundation for hateful and extremist ideas. But these ideas are certainly not limited to Klan, neo-Nazi, Christian Identity, Neo-Pagan, or Sovereign Citizen groups. When politicians demean a group because of their identity, hate speech is being mainstreamed, and this mainstreaming makes that discourse more acceptable. Donald Trump is a very good example of hate speech being mainstreamed.
The mainstreaming of hate does not only mean that ideas move from the hate groups to the mainstream of American life. The mainstreaming of hate happens when influence flows in the opposite direction. Following the 2008 election of Obama, Thomas Robb, the director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, noted that Obama’s election is “an opportunity to mobilize whites.” David Duke said [Obama's] election would be a visual reminder that whites had lost power in this country.
In my book, "Hate on the Right: Right Wing Political Groups and Hate Speech," I described ways that hate speech in the American hate movement converged with the discourse [some of the language] from the texts of the Christian right, right-wing producerism, and the paramilitary right.
THE FIX: What do you make of claims that Donald Trump's candidacy has sparked renewed interest in white supremacist groups and their doctrine?
White supremacist groups are among those who are drawn to the Trump candidacy. Don Black, the leader and author of a website named Stormfront, has said that Donald Trump has energized a group of people who normally have to fight the tendency to become demoralized. Black believes, as do I, that Trump has started a movement that will continue when Trump leaves the political theater.
This is part of what is meant by mainstreaming. The hate movement has a place in their normal, anonymous niche on the Internet. The mainstreaming of hate and hate speech is giving those in the hate movement a place in public life.