As George Orwell observed 70 years ago: “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”.
The debasement of language – and, by extension, a political culture that borders on the fraudulent – that we have seen in the last six months could last us a lifetime.
Before the runaway freight train named Donald Trump stops – and we know he will stop, though we don’t know at which station – he will leave in his wake the wreckage of a dysfunctional political process steeped in deception, doublespeak and obsolescence, where most of those Democrats and Republicans acting on the stage are merely engaged in political shadow dancing.
Trump’s rhetoric became more toxic and more dangerous, urging people to spy on their Muslim-American neighbors.Hisham Melhem
Regardless of where Trump ends up, we will continue to ask how a narcissistic, politically illiterate buffoon, a bigoted scoundrel with the vocabulary of a 13-year-old, could for six months have dominated the politics of the most powerful democracy in the world.
Trump speeches are a stream of disconnected words, punctuated by grunts, infinite references to “me”, “I” and “wows”, and made more dramatic with wild gesticulations.
His arsenal of words is frustratingly limited. For him things are “amazing”, “unbelievable” or “fantastic” and people are “stupid” or “dummies”.
His reaction to any criticism, however mild, is to pull the proverbial trigger and fire insults and invectives against his real and imagined critics. He has the habit of hurling racial and religious epithets against various groups and minorities, and when journalists – tepidly in many cases – question him he quickly and shamelessly claims: “I love the blacks” or “I love the Mexicans”. And there was even this recent gem: “I love the Muslims” – the very people he would like to keep beyond the ramparts of his would-be imperium.
Trump’s debasement of language has partially infected his critics, who are not satisfied – like me – by calling him a demagogue, charlatan, buffoon or scoundrel, but go beyond what is meaningful and realistic to venture that Trump is a fascist, or the shrill comparison to Hitler, an abuse of historical analogies and an insult to Hitler’s victims. (I find invoking Hitler and Nazism, to make a political point or comparison, inexcusable and intolerable in the extreme).
Analysts have made the inevitable observation that Trump is the latest in a fairly long line of dangerous demagogues whom have prayed on people’s fears in times of uncertainty and crisis.
He was compared to the late Alabama Governor George Wallace, who campaigned for the presidency in the 1960s and 1972, as an unabashed segregationist. Others compared Trump to an earlier bombastic demagogue from the 1920s, Huey Long, who served as the Governor of Louisiana and later represented that state in the Senate. But the most apt comparison was that to the late Republican senator Joe McCarthy, who in the 1950s waged a relentless campaign against would-be communists infiltrating the U.S. government by manipulating the politics of fear and xenophobia at the height of the Cold War. McCarthy, like Trump, used, manipulated and even intimidated the media.
The gullibility or even the infatuation of some in the media – particularly cable television, which sees Trump as the celebrity-cum-politician – explains in part why Trump has yet to spend any serious money on advertising. Trump’s early outrageous statements against reporters, particularly women, did not elicit the kind of tough reaction and hard questioning one would expect from serious media outlets. For months on end, Trump was allowed to dominate and shape the television coverage of his campaign. He was a fixture on the various talk shows, face-to-face or via phone, where he was chummy with television personalities who kept calling him “Don” or “Donald”.
The politics of fear
Trump mocked and ridiculed politicians, both liberal and conservative; he insulted Hispanics, African-Americans, and American Muslims, and after each outrageous milestone, his popularity increased.
For weeks on end, many people felt that Trump was living his fantasy; a reality television president. He was his usual crass self, laughing at our expense on his way to his nomination as the candidate of the Republican Party for President of the United States. Early on, there was an entertaining aspect to what looked like a quixotic campaign. But in the last few weeks, Trump’s rhetoric became more toxic and more dangerous, urging people to spy on their Muslim-American neighbors, calling for monitoring and closing certain mosques, and requiring Muslim-Americans to have special identity cards.
But last Monday, Trump dragged the United States into a new zone of hostility with the Muslim world. His call for excluding all Muslims from entering the United States was offensive and gratuitous in the extreme.
In an article I published in Politico Magazine on Monday, comparing the experiences of the Muslim communities in America with their co-religionists in Europe and particularly France, I felt compelled to add that, “In America circa 2015, many public figures are engaged in open incitement against fellow Americans. To them we should say: These words will draw blood.”
Past and Present
Much has been written about the history of exclusion in the United States, of restrictions on immigrations from certain countries or peoples. As recently as the 1930s and 1940s, European Jews fleeing Fascism and Nazism were not universally welcomed here, while internment camps were established for 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of whom were U.S. citizens.
Trump has been very successful in manipulating people’s fears and their economic uncertainties. Recent polls show that fear of terrorism is lifting Trump’s approval ratings.Hisham Melhem
But this is the first time an American public figure, and leading candidate of the Republican Party for the Presidency of the U.S., has called for banning the followers of the world’s second largest religion from entering the United States.
Trump has been very successful in manipulating people’s fears and their economic uncertainties. Recent polls show that fear of terrorism is lifting Trump’s approval ratings, as a potentially strong leader who would be more successful in combatting ISIS, than President Obama.
A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that the public has little faith in President Obama handling the terrorism threat from the so-called “Islamic State”. The Trump phenomenon at this moment in the life of America – just as the recent electoral gains of right-wing parties in Europe, particularly the National Front in France – should be understood in the context of a crisis of confidence and of leadership in both the United States and the European Union. It is a crisis that was brought to the fore in the wake of a historic refugee crisis for Europe emanating from the Middle East, and following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino committed mostly by the children of Muslim immigrants.
The EU never looked as uncertain about some of its fundamentals – multiculturalism, open borders, liberal immigration policies – as it looked this year. Long before the United States under Obama, the EU was retrenching from the Middle East, and some of its countries were drastically cutting their military budgets. Now France and the United Kingdom are being forced to react militarily to ISIS’s depredations in the heart of Europe. It is a sign of the times, that the U.S. after more than a year of an air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and with limited deployment of Special Forces, is still unable to suppress ISIS let alone defeat it. No Western country is willing to deploy ground troops to destroy ISIS.
These are dangerous times, not only for the peoples of the Middle East, particularly Syria and Iraq, but also for the U.S. and the EU. Security challenges, economic uncertainties and weak leaderships have created the fertile grounds for the likes of Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France.
Donald Trump will most likely not be elected President of the United States, but he has already demonstrated, that even in America, ambitious scoundrels can rise to invoke patriotism, project themselves as populist leaders, debase the political culture by demonizing other Americans, and whip up xenophobia and crass nativism. We have seen different faces of Mr. Trump in American history before. A loud, crass, narcissistic claimant of a savior in chief has emerged in our midst. This scoundrel is a native; he grew up in our political culture, and we deserve him.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhem