WASHINGTON ― After responsible stewardship of the nuclear arsenal, perhaps the most import role an American president sets is setting a tone that guides how millions of people will act.
In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, acts of violence and intimidation against the groups that he singled out during the campaign have been reported across the country, and are being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Ethiopian immigrant Yemaj Adem, for instance, was attacked in Grand Rapids on Nov. 12 by a man in his cab who started punching him and shouting, “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
The man was arrested, but he continued making racist comments about Adem in the back of the police car. “When I heard that Trump word, I knew this was something different,” Adem said, according to an article on the incident in the local Michigan press.
“I understand there’s a few people that have been brainwashed with hate speech,” he said. “And I’m not labeling everyone like this guy, but there are some out there.”
In an interview with “60 Minutes” after the election, Trump was asked about the surge in hate crimes. “I am so saddened to hear that,” he told CBS journalist Lesley Stahl. “And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it ― if it helps, I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: ‘Stop it.’”
The admonition was applauded, though some said it felt a bit like like Trump sounded as if he were chastising unruly children rather than condemning serious acts of violence.
Either way, the attacks have not stopped. Now, nearly two weeks after the election, The Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers and The Huffington Post are joining together to create a petition calling on Trump to make stopping the violence one of his highest priorities.
“We ask that you keep your promise by loudly, forcefully, unequivocally and consistently denouncing these acts and the ideology that drives them,” the petition states.“We ask you to use your position, your considerable platform and even your tweets to send a clear message that hate has no place in our public discourse, in our public policy or in our society.”
When it comes to Trump, whatever one may think of him, at least two things are clear: He wants to go down in history as a great, or perhaps the greatest, president ever, and he cares very deeply what people think about him and how he is performing.
In some ways, Trump may be more likely to be influenced by mass petitions and shifts in public opinion than presidents before him, who were grounded more firmly in their politics by partisan leanings or ideology. For the president-elect, though, there is only Trump, and greatness. If he can be persuaded that the regular acts of violence carried out by his supporters in his name ― quite literally in his name, as in cases like Adem’s attacker ― then he may decide that tamping them down is something he needs to do. If so, lives could be saved.
To: President-elect Donald Trump
On Nov. 8, you were elected president of the United States. As many have reiterated, regardless of which candidate any of us supported, you now have an obligation to represent ALL Americans. In your victory speech, you urged Americans to come together as one united people to take on the challenges before us.
Throughout American history, we have found opportunities to overcome our differences and work together for the common good; it is one of the defining characteristics of our nation’s greatness.
In the months leading up to your election, your campaign rhetoric found an audience with those who would use our differences to divide us. Throughout the campaign, you and your supporters directed hateful language at people based on what we look like, where our families come from, who we love, how we worship, our abilities, our gender, and other factors that make up our identity and expression in the world.
In the days since your election, we have seen people—seemingly emboldened by your victory—committing harassment, vandalism, property destruction and even assault based on those differences. Many of these acts have been carried out in your name. Though you may not condone this behavior, your silence gives tacit permission to those who perform these acts.
We are especially troubled by incidents taking place in schools and on college campuses—places where we do everything we can to ensure our children are safe and nurtured, and have the opportunity to grow and learn free of intimidation and hatred. But now we are hearing reports of children chanting “build the wall” at classmates, Muslim students and educators harassed for their clothing, male students intimidating their female classmates and swastikas painted on classroom doors.
Millions of your supporters would never participate in these actions, but your campaign rhetoric has created an environment that enables and encourages those who want to harm others. While you spoke against bullying, intimidation and hate crimes in your “60 Minutes” interview, the appointment of “alt-right” hero Steve Bannon as your chief strategist—which has been cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, the American Renaissance and other white supremacist groups—sends the exact opposite message.
The presidency is about many things. Chiefly, it is about setting an example through your leadership. You have said that you will be the president for all Americans, Mr. Trump. We ask that you keep your promise by loudly, forcefully, unequivocally and consistently denouncing these acts and the ideology that drives them. We ask you to use your position, your considerable platform and even your tweets to send a clear message that hate has no place in our public discourse, in our public policy or in our society.