Incendiary Political Rhetoric Breeds Violence

Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump holds a plane-side rally in a hanger at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in
Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump holds a plane-side rally in a hanger at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, Ohio, Monday, March 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Bad things happen when mainstream public figures engage in incendiary rhetoric that vilifies or scapegoats minorities.

We see it time and time again in our work.

When Islamophobia dominates the air waves, for example, we see an uptick in hate crimes against those perceived to be Muslim.

As a matter of common sense, you know the connection is there. But rarely can you draw a straight line between someone's hateful speech and violence or intimidation.

In Donald Trump's case, however, you don't have to take it on faith.

Last August, the Boston Globe described what happened to a 58-year-old Latino man who was ambushed by two white men as he slept: "The homeless man was lying on the ground, shaking, when police arrived. His face was soaked, apparently with urine, his nose broken, his chest and arms battered."

The man said he was awakened when the men started urinating on his head. Witnesses said two brothers, who were arrested, pummeled him with their fists and a metal pole before walking away laughing.

One of the attackers told police he was inspired by Trump. "Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported," he said, according to the Globe.

Trump, of course, has repeatedly called for building a wall between the United States and Mexico to keep immigrants out. But he has gone much further, describing Latino immigrants as "rapists," drug dealers and "killers." (The reality is that studies show immigrants commit less crime than the native population.)

When asked about the Boston hate crime, Trump didn't immediately condemn it. Inexplicably, he said his constituents are "very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again." Later, he did condemn the attack. But what possible reason could he have had for not immediately -- forcefully and without equivocation -- denouncing such violence? What possible reason could he have had for not immediately disavowing the endorsement of former Klan leader David Duke?

The Boston attack is just one incident, and no one can say with certainty that Trump was the cause of it. But a disturbing pattern is developing.

At a high school in Indiana last month, students sought to intimidate their opponents by chanting "Build a wall; build a wall" during a basketball game against a school with a heavy Latino student body. Just four days earlier, students in Iowa chanted "Trump! Trump!" during a game against a school with a diverse population.

Violence also has erupted repeatedly at Trump rallies.

In Louisville, for example, African-American protesters were forcibly ejected from a rally this month after Trump reportedly pointed at them and yelled, "Look at these people. Get out of here." One young black woman, a college student, was roughed up by a well-known white nationalist leader. In Fayetteville, N.C., a white man sucker-punched a black protester as he was being led out.

These kinds of incident, perhaps, could occur at any political rally where passions run high. But Trump's language sure seems to increase the odds.

He famously said he could shoot someone on the streets of Manhattan and not lose votes. At a Las Vegas appearance, he pointed out a protester and said, "I'd like to punch him in the face." "Get 'em outta here," is his constant refrain.

Trump may be the most prominent provocateur right now. But he is by no means the only person in public life who trades in incendiary rhetoric. Blaming the Other is an age-old game in American politics. The fact that it sometimes works should be deeply troubling to all of us.