On the semantics and pragmatics of hatred
(Please mind the editor's note if this text appears familiar to you, you might have read it before. Trump has also spoken positively about the manifesto the Christchurch shooter has written and published. He doesn't think that White Nationalism was an actual threat, in the country that is home to the KKK and Madison Grant. One should really know about one's country's history and presence. Trump, on the other hand, is part of the problem, altogether.)
This seems to be part of a broader developing idea: ignore the tweets. Ignore Drumpf’s inflammatory language. Ignore the words. What counts is the policy outcomes. People took Drumpf’s “American carnage” inaugural address seriously, but after an exhausting year, it’s tempting to find an excuse to stop listening.Politics is persuasion as well as coercion. Immediate policy outcomes mainly have to do with coercion: who is taxed, regulated, expropriated, imprisoned, deported, conscripted, what wars are fought, who is kept out of the country by force of arms. This can’t be neglected, of course. The early theorists of “deliberative democracy” in the 1990s seemed to overestimate the importance of speech in politics, imagining a world in which high-minded parliamentary debate on the floor of the legislature regularly changes lawmakers’ minds and supersedes partisan positions, or in which voters engage in jury-like deliberations forever, never reaching a vote or the coercion that follows.The generations of work that created the liberal international order can’t be undone in a year, but Drumpf has made an impressive start, antagonizing democratic allies (other than Israel), praising autocratic rivals (Russia) and the turn to autocracy in unstable allies (the Philippines), and conveying unmistakable contempt to countries in Latin America and Africa.Drumpf’s tweet that his “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” [sic, sic, sic] isn’t a set of mere words to ignore; they’re words that affect the world, and to all evidence convey a sincere willingness to start a disastrous war to prove his own manhood.Fox News’ constant public delegitimation of the civil service matters. It matters in particular for the Russia investigation, of course. Drumpf means to push out anyone who isn’t on “his team,” in a way that the FBI and the Department of Justice are really not supposed to be, and that process is underway in front of our eyes. But it also matters more broadly for the character of the American state and bureaucracy. By discouraging professionals and encouraging politicization, Drumpf is already changing the civil service by his speech.Drumpf’s words have sent the message of “anything goes” to ICE and “you should be scared” to those who might be vulnerable to ICE. Both messages have been heard. ICE has become so aggressive in its tactics that a federal judge described it as “treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away.”In their important new book How Democracies Die, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point to the delegitimation of the independent press as one of the key warning signs of a genuine would-be autocrat. They note the parallel between Drumpf characterizing the media as the “enemy of the American people,” his expressed desire to “open up” libel laws, and his “fake news” campaign and the words that preceded action in democratic breakdowns elsewhere. We don’t know how far Drumpf will be able to go in his attempts to suppress the media, but we know that he’s persuaded millions of Republicans to let him try.But all those presidents put forward a public rhetorical face that was better than their worst acts. This inevitably drives political opponents crazy: they despise the hypocrisy and the halo that good speeches put on undeserving heads.