Op-ed / Lost in Translation

Trump’s Tactics and Republican Speechlessness

Donald Trump has combined party politics and a familiar nationalist script with a uniquely American interpretation of free speech. The result is a racist rhetoric that has been frighteningly hard to stop.
In Mexico City, critics created a piñata in response to Donald Trump’s claims that many Mexican immigrants to the United States bring drugs and crime, and that many are rapists. Such rhetoric has put the Republican party in a political and moral bind.

In Mexico City, critics created a piñata in response to Donald Trump’s claims that many Mexican immigrants bring drugs and crime to the United States, and that many are rapists. Such rhetoric has put the Republican Party in a political and moral bind.

Marco Ugarte/AP Photo

The most astounding thing about the rise of Donald Trump is not his willingness to use racist hatred as a central theme in his presidential campaign—it’s the unwillingness of the Republican Party to denounce him for it.

Trump’s rivals and sundry party notables proclaim that Trump must be stopped, yet in the debates those same opponents ultimately pledge to support the party’s nominee, whoever it may be. And while some GOP strategists and pundits call on their fellow Republicans to renounce Trump, more are willing to see the party united behind him, if necessary. For example, a recent Washington Post forum featured advice from “seven top Republicans” about how the party “should respond to Trump.” Two out of the seven counseled outright acceptance of Trump, while three Republicans equivocated, saying there was still time to defeat him in the primaries. Only two—William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, and Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute—offered principled rejections of Trump. But only Pletka explicitly rejected Trump’s racism and xenophobia as “compromising core American values.” The majority of GOP leaders are unwilling to call out Trump for his racism.

Indeed, it might be more than unwillingness—the GOP might be politically incapable of denouncing Trump, given their history. The bind for Republicans is the fact that Trump’s strategy is all too familiar. A refusal to validate anti-racist arguments has been a central strand in Republican discourse since the term “politically correct” (or “PC”) became common coin in the 1990s. Conservatives use the term to denounce the politics of anti-racism without proclaiming adherence to its logical opposite—a politics of racism.

When students at the University of Missouri, for example, protested racist hate speech directed at them, their critics ignored the substance of those complaints. Instead, they excoriated the students’ political correctness as a denial of free speech and the right of all individuals to express their opinions as they see fit. As such, the critics pushed back against the meaning of the students’ complaints by not engaging with it and instead forcefully dismissing it.

Trump put his candidacy into play with his claim that many Mexican immigrants are rapists. He has renewed his initial gambit with similar statements about Muslims—a lot of them hate the United States, he claims—and about demonstrators who protest against him—they are attacking free speech, according to Trump. His fundamental assertion is that all such individuals must be expelled from the body politic for the sake of our national well-being.

So far, Trump is following a familiar nationalist script. A supposedly homogeneous national “we” is defined by the values it shares, and outsiders are portrayed as a threat to those values and to that homogeneity. If we admit outsiders, nationalist demagogues say, they will pollute and ultimately destroy the nation. And thus follows one of Trump’s most outrageous arguments, which is for the necessity of the U.S.-Mexican border wall—the ultimate symbol of nationalist ideologies the world over.

Trump’s next move, his wiliest tactic, is uniquely adapted to a U.S. nationalism.

But Trump’s next move, his wiliest tactic, is uniquely adapted to a U.S. nationalism in which free speech is a central value. He marks as enemies of the republic not only outsiders but also insiders who criticize his racism. His critics, he suggests, have been brainwashed by a PC ideology that would, if unchecked, deprive him and his supporters of their right to speak. In this way, according to Trump’s logic, those who are against him are as un-American as the immigrants he also decries.

The Democrats’ response to Trump is straightforward. They denounce his racism and defend their continued inclusion of the people Trump would exclude. But this leaves his adroit attack on political correctness untouched. As for Republicans, they have long used contempt for political correctness as a cover for their own color-coded (that is, racial) appeals to their base. They can hardly call out Trump for doing the same thing—or attack their base as being racist or open to racist appeals. Through his twisted defense of free speech, Trump has rendered the Republican establishment speechless.

Some level of cosmic justice may be served by the fact that Trump forces the GOP either to own up to its electoral reliance on racism or to remain silent. But there will be no justice in the United States if those who value racial reparation above party politics fail to speak and work against Trump. The only way to counter his poisonous and anesthetizing verbal arrows is to defend discourse that is civil, inclusive, and democratic, and oppose that which is racist, xenophobic, and nationalistic.

Richard Handler is a professor of anthropology and the director of the global studies program at the University of Virginia. He has conducted fieldwork in Quebec and Virginia, resulting in two books, Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec and The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg (co-authored with Eric Gable). He is currently writing a book on the national iconography of U.S. postage stamps and working on articles about revitalizing the American undergraduate curriculum in the 21st century.


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