“I’m not afraid of Donald Trump, because I know that he’s just messing with everyone.”
It’s a popular and understandable sentiment. After all, as author Tim L. O’Brian has noted, Trump is in many ways more of an entertainer than anything else. Personally, I enjoyed laughing along at moments like when Trump said his temperament was his strongest asset, or pronounced 2 Corinthians “Two Corinthians” while trying to win over voters at a Christian university. Plus, I think the popularity of this argument is augmented by the fact that it helps staunch Republicans who knew he was temperamentally unfit to serve as President, who knew he had zero business being in the Oval Office, justify their decision to vote for him. I openly acknowledge that there’s a chance, however little, that he will govern in a way that’s inconsistent with his rhetoric. But, when it comes to the presidency, the rhetoric of a candidate should never be taken lightly, especially when said candidate’s rhetoric is dangerous (as Trump’s has been).
Furthermore, even if Trump isn’t being serious, even if he isn’t going to start an arms race with China, or ignore any intelligence information that’s inconvenient to him, or implement a Muslim ban, it simply isn’t acceptable for the American people to tolerate his current behavior, as it will, if left unabated, have a strongly pervasive effect on American politics and the American people in general.
Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump told a multitude of lies and spewed falsehoods more often than he spoke the truth. Remember when he claimed that he saw “thousands and thousands of people” celebrating as the World Trade Center collapsed? And then when he doubled down on the lie, even when he was presented evidence to the contrary? What about when he said that Ted Cruz’s father participated in the JFK assassination? (which always raises the question of why our president, or anyone, takes the National Inquirer seriously, but that’s a different story). If these comments had been made in a movie, that movie would be a contender for best comedy of the year; but this isn’t a movie. This is real life, and Trump’s words have consequences. Now, because The Huffington Post would prefer that this post be shorter than the Bible, I can’t get into all of Trump’s lies here. So, before continuing with this piece, I will provide this very handy link where anyone interested can check out all of Trump’s lies.
“But that’s not fair! He said those things so he could be elected!”
Okay, that’s still pretty dangerous (after all, that’s exactly what many American media outlets said about Hitler), but it’s also a fair point. So, how will he govern? His first (and only) press conference as President-elect would provide some hint, and it told us that he was willing to attack any media outlet that published a story unfavorable to him as “fake news.” This follows months of attacks on media outlets. Then, there was the fact that his inaugural address was more or less the exact same as any of those given during his rallies. And then there’s the fact that he spent his first full day as President whining about crowd size and having his press secretary tell flat out falsehoods. None of this is normal for a President of the United States, not even a Republican; it is, however, quite common in dictatorial countries.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say that he’s messing with us. Let’s say that when he says ridiculous things or promotes conspiracy theories, it’s all a big joke. Even then, what he’s saying is grossly irresponsible.
In their book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson note an incident when an unhinged Tea Partier cut the gas line to what they thought was the home address of Representative Tom Perriello (it was actually the home of his brother and his family, which included four young children). What led them to do this? A Tea Party blog had posted the address on their website and encouraged their readers to give Perriello a nice “face-to-face chat.” The final conclusion Skocpol and Williamson give to this tale is that such rhetoric can encourage individuals to “turn words into action,” even if actual violence is discouraged. Such an occurrence can be seen in Pizzagate.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Pizzagate was the wild conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and some of her associates were running a Satanic pedophilia sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza place in Washington D.C. While Trump himself never discussed the story, several figures who are friendly with him (such as Alex Jones) did. But the story didn’t really catch on until Michael Flynn Jr. ― son of our current National Security Advisor (selected by Donald Trump), Michael Flynn ― tweeted about it. Flynn himself didn’t do anything beyond spread a baseless conspiracy theory, but some took it a step further: Edgar Welch took Pizzagate seriously, so he decided to go to Comet Ping Pong with an AR-15 assault rifle to “self-investigate.” Fortunately, no one was hurt, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll be so lucky next time.
Donald Trump may not have spread the Pizzagate rumors, but he did launch the attacks on the “mainstream media” that led people like Welch to take the opinions of Alex Jones more seriously than The New York Times. Furthermore, he has legitimized baseless conspiracies in the past. All it’ll take is for one person to believe deeply enough when Trump says the media is out to get him, and a catastrophic event could occur. If Donald Trump is serious about running this country, then he will stop taking the opinions of the National Inquirer more seriously than the opinions of the CIA. I truly hope that he does this, but until he does, everyone who allows Trump to say what he wants without consequence is abetting in the destruction of all that we hold dear.