As someone who has spent his entire professional life studying rhetoric, I can confidently say that President Donald Trump’s rhetoric did not cause the horrific terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand last week that left 50 people dead. Quite simply, rhetoric does not work that way. It does not directly cause violence because it cannot “force” persons to behave violently.
Rhetoric works, rather, by way of invitation. It asks things of us. Sometimes it asks politely, sometimes not; sometimes it asks subtly, sometimes not. We either accept its invitations or we do not. But rhetoric is never neutral. It invites us to view issues, events and people through particular lenses. If we agree to its invitations, if we accept its lenses, then we are also implicitly agreeing to how we ought to respond to those same issues, events and people. So, to be clear. Donald Trump did not cause the terrorist attack in Christchurch, but he invited it.
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I say this not as a layperson or as a casual observer, but as an expert who has studied rhetoric generally for more than 20 years and Trump’s rhetoric specifically for the past two. For some readers, my expertise will be sufficient reason alone to dismiss what I am saying because they do not trust experts. I understand this. I also understand that while Trump did not cause widespread distrust of experts (and of facts and of science), he invited it. Authoritarians like Donald Trump invite people to distrust everyone and everything but the authoritarian. This is how they consolidate power.
Since being elected president, Trump has accused mainstream news media outlets of being fake news more than 375 times on Twitter in his first 787 days in office. This is more than once every other day. One poll found that 77 percent of Americans now say major news outlets report “fake news.”
Trump has also accused the news media of being “the enemy of the people.” Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, attendees at Trump rallies routinely harassed and threatened members of the press corps. Last year, Cesar Sayoc mailed pipe bombs to journalists and other prominent critics of the president. While Trump did not cause Americans to distrust our fourth estate, and he did not cause the attendees at his campaign rallies to bully journalists, and he did not cause Sayoc to engage in acts of terrorism, he invited it. This is what authoritarians do; they invite their followers to threaten, intimidate and harass their critics.
Trump delegitimizes, downplays truths
Since being elected president, Donald Trump has accused special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — without any evidence — of being a “witch hunt” or “hoax” over 200 times on Twitter. Mueller has a long and distinguished record of service to this country, having served as the sixth director of the FBI from 2001 to 2013. He was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed a bill granting him two more years more than his 10-year term limit. This January, 83 percent of Republicans said the Mueller investigation was a politically motivated witch hunt. While Trump did not cause an overwhelming number of his followers to distrust our intelligence community generally and Mueller specifically, he invited it. This is what authoritarians do; they delegitimize the institutions that serve as checks on their power.
Since becoming president, Trump has consistently downplayed the dangers of white nationalism and provided rhetorical cover for racists. In his public remarks following the death of a protester at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, for instance, President Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” The phrase “on many sides” created a false moral equivalency between the white supremacists and those who came out to protest their bigotry and hate.
Similarly, Trump responded to the recent massacre in Christchurch by suggesting that he did not see white nationalism as a growing terrorist threat. In this instance, the alleged perpetrator had not only invoked Trump explicitly in his manifesto, but he had also invoked Trump’s immigration rhetoric involving “invasion.” This is what authoritarians do; they demonize groups that are racially, ethnically and religiously different and cast them as a threat, which in turn unifies their base against a common enemy.
Trump invites the worst in us
Rhetoric is not a cause; it is an invitation. Trump did not cause the growing hatred of people who are ethnically, racially and religiously different, but he invited it. Trump did not cause a global rise in white nationalism, but he invited it. Trump did not cause the widespread mistrust of our most cherished democratic institutions (a free press, an independent judiciary, the FBI, the CIA, etc.), but he invited it. Trump did not cause Russian interference in the 2016 election, but he invited it. Trump did not cause the GOP’s loss of all decency and principle, but he invited it. Trump did not cause the growing incivility in our political discourse, but he invited it. Trump did not cause Americans to turn against fellow Americans, but he invited it.
Donald Trump invites us to follow our worst impulses. He invites us to be our worst selves. He invites us to view some people as less than human. And in doing so, he invites us, again and again, to participate in all manner of vitriol and violence. No, Donald Trump did not cause the massacre of 50 people in New Zealand, but his rhetoric sure invited it.
Brian L. Ott, a professor of communication studies and director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University, is co-author, with Greg Dickinson, of “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.”