Trump’s Rhetoric and Frogs in Warming Water

Princeton University Press has begun an “Election 2016: Hot Button Issues” series at its blog and its inaugural post, “Donald Trump and Mass Incarceration” is by Jason Stanley (Yale). In the post, Stanley argues that Trump’s articulation of xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, and harshly retributivist views is problematic not only because his campaign success so far reveals that a large portion of the public agrees with him, but because it “legitimizes these ideologies in the public domain.” The dehumanizing ideologies animating Trump’s remarks are usually disguised or coded, but Trump himself doesn’t hide his beliefs. Stanley writes, “Donald Trump’s support is in large part due to the fact that he gives explicit voice to ideologies that are outside the bounds of public respectability.”

Stanley uses as an analogy the harsh “public discourse about US criminal justice practices from the late 1980s through the 1990s,” during which “dehumanizing vocabulary targeting those caught up in the criminal justice system was commonplace” and “criminal justice practices became harshly retributive as a consequence…” He writes:

Trump’s candidacy is focused on policy debates whose structure parallels that of the criminal justice debate, where there is a clear “friend/enemy” distinction exploitable for political gain, such as immigration and terrorism. His rhetoric emulates the dehumanizing tropes of the late 1980s and 1990s criminal justice debate.

Trump’s rhetoric has been getting increasingly extreme, with no flagging in his public support. Stanley notes:

Trump is also increasingly experimenting with the most extreme dehumanizing representations, ones that have pre-genocidal associations. His first national advertisement, released this week, showed Mexican immigrants as insects scurrying and scattering like an infestation. It would be nice to dismiss such representations as unlikely to affect public debate. History suggests that this is wishful thinking. The representation of targeted groups as insects or vermin is a theme in Nazi propaganda about Jews; in the buildup to the Rwandan genocide, Hutu ethnic radio pride radio stations began calling Tutsi, “inyenzi”, meaning “cockroach”. Recent US history with the criminal justice debate suggests we may even be particularly vulnerable.

There’s the old myth about frogs and boiling water. They’ll quickly jump out if tossed into a pot of boiling water, supposedly, but will sit contentedly in a pot of slowly warming water until it boils, killing them.

How warm is the water, philosophers? How are we supposed to go about figuring that out? Analyses like Stanley’s suggest that the water is pretty hot. If it is, what should we do?


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Henri Perron
Henri Perron
8 years ago

There seems to be a far-right reactionary (in regards to fear propaganda) movement sweeping the western world. The Golden Dawn party in Greece, the right-wingers in France, the Tories in the UK, and the Trump fiasco un the US.

There are some pretty radical right-wing (read: Fascist) ideas being normalized in the public debate right now. As long as people are fearful, they’ll entertain the “desperate times call for desperate (inhuman) measures” approach.

So this leads us to the question: how do we address the widespread fear mongering?

In terms of ‘terrorism’ (in the sense used by politicians), we need to somehow convince people that creating more terrorists via drone strikes isn’t the answer. Neither is dehumanizing and margenalizing Islamists and people of Middle-Eastern descent. If being assholes to people solved anything or made them better, we’d live in a world of pretty cool people.

As far as economic fear goes, I think we need to stop caring about about economic boogeymen. Oh, we’re $16 trillion in debt? To whom? A Grexit from the Eurozone would just bring about global economic disaster, right? These economic boogeymen are used by the economic elite to justify austerity and socioeconomic oppression.

When people are fearful, they may very well cling to any evil extremeist who charasmatically offers a ‘no-nonsense solution’.

Thomas Mulligan
8 years ago

While I think Trump would be a bad, possibly catastrophic, President, I find it hard to blame him for the sorry state of our political discourse. Understandably enough, Trump wants to be President. Since we live in a democracy, and democracy is at base a popularity contest, a rational Trump will craft his speech with an eye toward maximizing the number of people who like him relative to his competitors. This is precisely what he is doing. If Republican primary voters wanted sober policy talk, they would get it.

What, then, should Trump do? Is he morally obliged to dissemble? To conceal his racism and xenophobia in the name of protecting the public discourse? What are we suppose to do, then, if he gets elected President and these traits play their predictable roles? Asking our politicians to keep their most loathsome features hidden from public view does not seem desirable.

The way Stanley puts it, “illiberal ideologies” are inherently “barriers to fair democratic deliberation”, but that cannot be correct. Surely there are some conservative ideas which, even if wrong, are not outside the bounds of public debate. “Welfare” is not “coded language”; welfare is a concrete policy issue over which reasonable people can disagree. And what’s wrong with Trump saying “we have to get a lot tougher on crime” and agitating for expanding the death penalty? It’s true that this language may well “undermine the bipartisan consensus that there is a crisis of incarceration”, but that’s the whole point–Trump believes that the consensus view is wrong and he is effectively making his case to the democratic public: with inflammatory and empty rhetoric.

While some public reason standard might rule out the most extreme forms of political speech (the standard is so ill-defined, it’s hard to know), in any case, America’s cultural and political crisis did not result from these. The crisis is a result of anger and fear, especially among Republicans; widespread ignorance and irrationality within the electorate; and the undue confidence with which people hold opinions, even when faced with expert disagreement.

In short, Trump is a symptom. We, the American people, have only ourselves to blame.

Fred Herring
Fred Herring
8 years ago

“Trump’s articulation of xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, and harshly retributivist views is problematic not only because his campaign success so far reveals that a large portion of the public agrees with him, but because it “legitimizes these ideologies in the public domain.” The dehumanizing ideologies animating Trump’s remarks are usually disguised or coded, but Trump himself doesn’t hide his beliefs.”

It’s extraordinary that anyone would present Trump as some sort of innovator or as a person who is has crossed some rubicon of open racism. This has all been going on–without the slightest coding–on right wing radio for years and years. The genocidal language has been in place there for years. Philosophers may wish to do some research on this phenomenon. Consider, e.g., the use of the term ‘vermin’ to describe Mexicans and Latino immigrants: ‘Cockroach’ is a slur that has been used for years and years. This is not something Donald Trump innovated.

In a slightly less virulent form it’s been going on at Fox News for many years.

And the mainstream right has dabbled for quite some time in anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment.

(Those weren’t Mexican immigrants on Trump’s ad. )

These ideas are perfectly respectable to many people. What does the idea of respectability do for us here, in helping us understand? What’s it even mean? What makes Dan Savage not respectable but Trump respectable? For Trump’s target audience, both are respectable. Outside those audiences, they continue to lack respectability.

The exceptional thing is not that Trump is saying what has been said for many years in many public forums but the teflon aspect of his candidacy–that the outrage and even horror his words engender do not get a purchase and do not undermine him in the mainstream media or elsewhere. (The GOP establishment hates him for a variety of reasons.) The extraordinary thing is that he appears unstoppable. He keeps talking and they keep listening. This is the truly extraordinary (and scary) thing: He doesn’t get shut down by the wave of reaction to his views, as is usual. In fact, he spins the narrative the way he wants it to go.

For people who have been paying attention, the pot has been on the fire for quite some time and the water has been plenty hot. Questions to consider (1) Why does it matter when it becomes explicit? It’s certainly been explicit in many significant venues for quite awhile–certainly since before 9/11 but then rampant afterward. (It helps to be a member of one of the groups targeted. If you were, you would be quite aware of the pre-Trump sentiments expressed on the radio and elsewhere.) If the language is kept implicit, does it do the same damage? (2) How does Trump legitimize these ideologies and where does that take us? He certainly doesn’t legitimize them by his political position as a candidate. David Duke was a candidate. So what does legitimize them?

One way is that he gives racist and xenophobic white people a sense that others agree with them. This reduces their concern that being a racist xenophobe carries a stigma. This is empowering to such people–the idea that their hate and fear is shared. This can also license more hesitant racists to entertain ideas more directly they may have been afraid to consider. Even then though, it isn’t clear that this is true legitimation. It’s mainly what they already believe. In fact, Trump is successful because he is echoing what people believe rather than leading them into belief.

The real future cost will arise from a craven pandering to this group of people by legislators. Whenever some totally misguided set of views is seen as held by enough of the electorate, legislators start taking their views into account. But again, we already saw this when Central American refugees were being illegally prevented from seeking asylum by the Obama administration. We can expect more of the same –but worse. So there won’t be some mass fascist movement as this post suggests but instead a slow creep toward more xenophobic and racist policies–many of which are already in place.