The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An expert on ‘dangerous speech’ explains how Trump’s rhetoric and the recent spate of violence are and aren’t linked

The Washington Post's Aaron Blake and David Nakamura analyze why President Trump's inflamed political rhetoric is being tied to a string of recent crises. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Two weeks before Donald Trump would be elected president, American University professor Susan Benesch was careful not to draw parallels between the Republican candidate and the world leaders she has studied who incite mass violence.

But it was hard to ignore the similarities then, and it’s even harder now.

Benesch has dedicated the past decade of her academic research to developing a framework to identify what she terms “dangerous speech,” or speech that can lead to violence. Lately, everywhere she goes, she is asked whether she ever imagined that the ideas she has studied would be so relevant in her country. (She did not.)

To rise to the level of dangerous speech, at least two of these five indicators must be true:

  • A powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience.
  • The audience has grievances and fears that the speaker can cultivate.
  • A speech act that is clearly understood as a call to violence.
  • A social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for a variety of reasons, including long-standing competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances or previous episodes of violence.
  • A means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience.

Trump’s rhetoric certainly meets that criteria regularly, although Benesch, a journalist and lawyer before she went into academia, is deliberate with her language and would not directly say that his comments caused the violent events of the past week. But she is willing to point to certain phrases used by the president as consistent with inflaming violence, including referring to reporters as the “enemy of the people” and standing by as supporters chanted “Lock her up” the day a pipe bomb was intercepted on its way to Hillary Clinton’s house.

In a phone interview Monday with The Fix, Benesch explained the ways in which she thinks Trump’s use of incendiary language bears some responsibility for the pipe bombs sent to Democratic leaders and detractors of Trump last week, and the killings of 11 Jewish people at their synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Were the events of the past week a result of dangerous speech?

I would say I am by nature and decision an optimistic person, but this last week has really been extra discouraging because of how terribly familiar it is. For example, the man who committed the massacre in Pittsburgh sends a last message not being able to stand by and see his own people being slaughtered. He feels people like him face an existential or mortal threat by people he perceives as the enemy. His assertion that he couldn’t stand by is straight out of the textbook of dangerous speech.

Fear is the motivator, not hate. [Benesch noted that Adolf Hitler convinced Germans that Jews wanted to hurt them to justify the violence against Jewish people.]

If you can convince people that they are committing violence in self-defense, not only is this massacre acceptable, but it’s necessary.

Q: Does Trump himself use dangerous speech?

Trump has painted Mexicans as a great threat, individually and collectively. We must build a wall against people coming across the Southern border. Why? Because they are threatening and we must stop them. The whole white supremacist narrative is based on this idea of white genocide. The phrase suggests white people face alienation by nonwhite people. Recently, there has been a tremendous increase in propaganda against George Soros, but it’s not him the individual — he’s the personification of rich, conniving Jews.

There have been a number of phrases that Trump has used repeatedly that have been picked up by other people on and offline that I suspect have true harmful effect. One of them is calling journalists the “enemy of the people” — it makes me afraid for the safety of journalists. What I can’t do and won’t do is say that it increases the risk that journalists will be attacked, but I am really worried about it. He is at least trivializing the alarm that the rest of us feel at such an act.

Q: Would you say the events of the last week are a result of Trump’s language?

I continue to be very careful about drawing conclusions about why someone did something. I don’t know whether those individuals were influenced by anything Trump himself said. I simply don’t know. I want to be very careful not to draw conclusions, but I looked at social media accounts [of the alleged mail bomber and accused synagogue gunman], and they do seem to echo so much of what Trump said.

What I will say is that there is no question in my mind that the president’s rhetoric has helped to shift discourse norms in our country such that it is more acceptable among more people to denigrate and attack other groups of human beings. People feel emboldened to chant those things publicly, which is a specific example of a shift in public discourse in the country.

And then of course [after the deadly white nationalist protests in Charlottesville last summer] Trump said “both sides” [were to blame]. It was not a direct endorsement but an egregious failure to condemn what they said, which implicitly is a failure to use his tremendous position of power and influence to keep norms where they should be. So at a minimum, he is failing to counter such speech, and in my view that is a strong obligation he has as president. In my view, he has an even stronger obligation stemming from the fact he has said many things that cause one group of people to turn against another group of people.

Q: What about Republicans in general? By being a member of a party whose leader uses such language, should they also be held responsible?

In my view, they have a responsibility for two key reasons. One, they have a moral responsibility because there does seem to be a great danger that some people who are more likely to resort to violence are increasingly likely to do that because of the rhetoric to which they are lately exposed. In some sense, anyone who has influence has a civic responsibility to our country and its people to speak out to decrease the risk of such disasters. And two, anybody who is perceived as associated with a dangerous speaker has a much greater power to defang the dangerous speech than someone from a different group. Democratic leaders can denounce it all day long until they are blue in the face and they are less likely to be effective than those from the same side. If enough of them do it, then maybe they can break the sort of impasse against it.

Q: There are many Republicans who have denounced his language. Is that enough?

I would like to see them collectively demand that Trump apologize. I would much prefer they collectively make a statement: “We feel as Americans he must now say that in our current climate of polarization and anxiety and violence in this country we must avoid statements that denigrate or demonize groups of people, and he must apologize for his rhetoric of the past.”