During last week's presidential debate, I watched as the discussion transitioned to the legality of "stop and frisk." As sometimes happens at the most unpredictable moments, I had a flashback to one of my experiences working in war zones. This time, my mind wandered to 2005 when I wrote about abuses caused by the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Specifically, I remembered traveling through Israeli military check points in the West Bank where Palestinian vehicles were stopped, searched, and, on occasion, the occupants arbitrarily detained. An extreme version of "stop and frisk." Even though I went through the same check points, my American passport guaranteed I would never be searched or detained. Because of my skin tone and nationality, I was not a threat. Palestinian Arabs had no such guarantees.
This flashback made me wonder if Trump's race-centric political ascension mirrored other racial and ethnic conflicts I studied or experienced first-hand over the years. This article demonstrates that several elements of Trump's candidacy bear strong similarities to other ethnic conflicts. The US, because of its relative wealth and strong institutions, has greater resilience to the worst consequences of these race wars than many of the countries mentioned below, but nonetheless could suffer considerably.
Racial and ethnic strife have played a role in wars and human tragedies for millennia. Thirteen-thousand years ago, the first documented race war raged in what is now North Sudan between stoutly framed Sub-Saharan Africans and taller enemies from Europe and North Africa. In fact, some of the greatest tragedies in modern man's history - like the Jewish or Armenian genocides - were perpetrated around racial identities. Even current conflicts - like many in Africa or the Middle East - are largely defined according to ethnic, racial, and religious differences.
This long history shows us that two conditions must be sown to cultivate a race war - defined as violent conflict among one or more racial, religious, or ethnic group. First, hate speech - speech that disparages a person based on their racial identity - becomes dangerous speech - speech that incites violence. And second, racial discrimination is codified through policy and upheld by institutions. Trump is (wittingly or unwittingly) constituting both conditions.
A study by California State University-San Bernardino's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism argues that, "rhetoric is one of the significant variables that can contribute to hate crimes." Moreover, professor Susan Benesch of American University identifies five variables that maximize the likelihood that speech leads to violence. Trump scores highly in all five.
1. A powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over his audience
In most countries with ethnic conflict, there is a known political figure or prominent personality driving racial discord. This is true for virtually every country that has experienced ethnic strife. Trump has cultivated his public speaking and his ability to generate a reaction from his intended audience through decades as a public figure and reality television star. For all his seemingly incoherent and uniformed bloviating, Trump inarguably is able to connect with his audience. Moreover, as the standard bearer of the Republican party, he has enormous influence over millions of American conservatives.
2. The audience has fears the speaker can exploit
People need a reason to turn their frustrations into grievances toward another race. Political leaders frequently tap into these frustrations to garner support. This summer in Kenya, a country plagued by ethnic-based skirmishes, eight politicians were arrested after they made remarks "laced with ethnic hatred, vilification and incitement." Even Kenya's current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was charged in 2010 by the International Criminal Court for inciting ethnic violence (charges were later dropped because of insufficient evidence).
Trump's audience is overwhelmingly white. According to a WSJ/NBC poll, Trump's national share of the black vote is just five percent compared to 76 percent for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. In the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, polls show Trump with zero percent support from African-Americans. Yes, you read that correctly, zero! Among Hispanics, Trump does not fare much better. From the same WSJ/NBC poll, he received 17 percent support from Hispanic voters, while Clinton received 65 percent.
Trump's audience holds glaring fears and prejudices against non-whites. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, nearly half of Trump supporters believe that African-Americans are more "violent" and more "criminal" than whites. Forty percent describe black people as more "lazy" than whites." Eighty percent support an immigration "ban on Muslims." A third thought the practice of Islam should be illegal in this country. And 38 percent wished the south had won the civil war.
Trump has consistently cultivated these fears. He famously called Mexicans "rapists" and his entire political ascension began by questioning the nationality of America's first black president. He associates terrorism with Islam and unemployment with trade and immigration.
3. Speeches understood as calls to violence
In 2015, there was a wave of violence against immigrants in South Africa. The violence started after the influential Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, said to a gathering of supporters that foreigners "should pack their bags and go" because they are taking jobs from South Africans. Hardly an outwardly inciting comment, but nonetheless people understood this as a call to violence and took to the streets with bats and machetes. In the end, seven people were murdered and dozens more injured.
Like Zwelithini, Trump also has not made overt calls for widespread violence, but he has certainly embraced violent rhetoric. On at least nine different occasions, he suggested using violence against his opponents. Twice he suggested that someone could or should assassinate his Democratic rival. Trump may or may not know the potential consequences of violent speech, but history shows it matters.
4. Historical context and, specifically, if there is a recent history of violence
I carried out a study in 2008 that analyzed every war in Africa since 1980 (126 wars in 32 countries) and showed the greatest predictor of violence is a history of violence. Rwanda is an extreme example. There, Tutsis were privileged over Hutus by Belgian colonialists because of their more European features. This privilege led to historical Hutu grievances. Just prior to the 1994 genocide, there was a war between Tutsi rebels and the Hutu-led government. After the Rwandan president's plane was shot down, hate speech toward Tutsis accelerated. This mix of hate speech with historical grievances and recent violence was the powder keg that exploded into 800,000 deaths.
The United States has a long history of violence by whites toward non-whites. This includes colonial violence against Native Americans, the history of slavery, and the assassinations of minority leaders, to name a few. More recently, there have been well-publicized killings of black Americans at the hands of white police officers. This has led to protests, which in some cases led to new violence, like in Charlotte, Ferguson, Baltimore, and Milwaukee.
5. The speaker is the primary source of news for his or her audience
In Rwanda, much of the 1994 violence was incited by a radio station that consistently encouraged violence against Tutsis. In rural Rwanda, radio was the only source of news for many Hutus. A study of the Rwandan genocide by David Yanagizawa shows that killings were 65 to 77 percent higher in villages that received radio signals from this station than in villages that did not.
Today, there is no shortage of websites peddling racial divisiveness. But, Trump represents a mainstream mouthpiece that would otherwise not exist for many racist groups and theories. For example, a mainstream republican would never have heard the rumor that Obama is not American from any reputable news source, but he or she would have heard it from Trump. Last fall, the head of the American Nazi Party, Rocky Suhayda, wrote, "Donald Trump's campaign statements, if nothing else, have SHOWN that 'our views' are NOT so 'unpopular' as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!" (His emphases) The founder of a white nationalist website wrote, "Our message is more visible than ever before...It's also all due to Trump's presidential run." Once Trump himself retweeted a post from @WhiteGenocideTM, a white nationalist account. In fact, no less than 15 individuals affiliated with hate groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, have endorsed Trump as President. He has not repudiated any of these endorsements.
It is not only dangerous speech that creates conditions for racial violence, but also racist policies and institutions. During World War II, it was not just Nazi propaganda that vilified Jews, but also a state apparatus that systematically discriminated against them. Official German policy condemned Jews to ghettos and concentration camps while state institutions implemented these edicts. In Rwanda, the military facilitated the killing of Tutsis. In many countries with a history of racial and ethnic violence, policy and institutions follow the mandate of the head-of-state. Trump has already provided three examples of how his policy and institutional mandates are based on race.
First, Trump proposes deporting all undocumented immigrants from the United States. If implemented, this would result in the forceful removal of 11.3 million individuals from the United States, 52 percent of which are Mexican. It is unclear what Trump's forced displacement would look like, but history suggests these displacements lead to terrible human tragedies. In 1915, Turks expelled Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. It was during this expulsion that 1.5 million Armenians died. There is a similar, albeit smaller-scale, history of expulsion in the United States. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act to expel five Native American nations from the eastern United States to beyond the Mississippi River. This included the "trail of tears" where, of the 15,000 Cherokee natives forced to move, 5,000 died.
Second, Trump proposes not allowing immigrants into the country, especially Mexicans and Muslims. One of Trump's cornerstone campaign pledges is to build a giant wall along the 2,000-mile southern border with Mexico. The goal would be to ostensibly prevent competition for American jobs, but in reality would keep as many Hispanics out of the country as possible. In December, Trump proposed a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." Several months later he suggested "The time is overdue to develop a new screening test" that prevents individuals "who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law" from entering. Such a religious test is unprecedented in American history and would clearly target Muslim immigrants (though loyalty oaths have been implemented previously). With a policy of deportation and reduced immigration, it seems that to "Make America Great Again" means to make America as white as possible.
Third, Trump proffered instituting "stop and frisk" in American cities. "Stop and frisk" gives police officers the right to stop and question citizens, then frisk them for weapons. During his first debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump referred to this as "law and order." He cited New York's experience with "stop and frisk" as one to follow, but this practice was ruled to have "violated the constitution" because it disproportionately targets blacks and Hispanics.
In New York City, from 2004 to 2012, "stop and frisk" resulted in 4.4 million stops with only six percent of these stops leading to arrests and six percent leading to summonses. The other 88 percent resulted in no action. Of the 4.4 million people stopped, about half were frisked, with only 1.5 percent leading to the discovery of weapons. More importantly, 83 percent of the time the person stopped was black or Hispanic.
Trump was enthusiastically endorsed by the National Rifle Association and pledged to protect gun rights. But, by supporting the NRA, which has a majority white membership, and reinstituting "stop and frisk," Trump effectively supports arming whites while disarming blacks and Hispanics. Disarming a perceived enemy group is a common occurrence in ethnic conflicts. During Guatemala's military takeover in 1954, policy dictated that to legally access guns one must pay a fee and "prove his good character." In application, this kept guns out of the hands of indigenous Guatemalans and in the hands of wealthier mestizos who were more likely to support the military. In the 1960s, Uganda permitted guns only to those with the "fitness" to possess a firearm. "Fitness" was discretionarily defied by the government. This effectively disarmed Idi Amin's ethnic opponents and paved the way for massive ethnic killings.
Trump can also count on having the institutional support in place to carry out his racist policies. Besides the NRA, Trump's race-centric stances on gun control, immigration, and "law and order" have garnered him the endorsements of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). The NBPC is a national union of border patrol agents that supports the deportation of "illegal aliens." The FOP claims to be the "world's largest organization of sworn law enforcement officers." But, some of the FOP's objectives are to reduce criticism of the police while undermining attempts to add oversight and accountability to police action. Perhaps unsurprisingly, African-American members of the FOP have voiced their disagreement with the organization's endorsement of Trump.
Taken together, Trump's dangerous speech, his policy proposals, and institutional support suggest that his election would create the conditions for a race war in the United States. Do I think this will happen? Not likely. The US is too wealthy, state institutions are too strong, and civil society is too empowered: all attributes that the above-mentioned countries suffering from race wars or ethnic violence do not possess. Still, unlike in Europe, where the denigration of communities and religion is criminalized, in the US there is no law against slandering communal identity, only against slandering individuals. This, along with the experiences of ethnic conflict from around the world, make it likely that hate crimes, race-related terrorism, and racial discrimination in general will all increase under a Trump presidency.
More frightening is the reality that simply electing Clinton may not be enough to stop the violent racism that Trump's campaign has intensified. The head of the American Nazi Party summarized this when he warned, "If (Trump) loses, it is by fraud, and all of these people who are currently supporting him are going to be radicalized." In this sense, the racist nature of the Trump candidacy has already broadened racial discord, increased the likelihood that the discord will turn violent, and, as we have seen from other examples, this racial discord could persist for a generation or more.