Monday, October 29, 2018

How Trump’s Hateful Speech Raises the Risks of Violence

By Cass R. Sunstein
October 28, 2018

Is President Donald Trump responsible, in some sense, for the mailing of bombs to Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders? Is he responsible, in some sense, for the slaughter at the Pittsburgh synagogue?

If we are speaking in terms of causation, the most reasonable answer to both questions, and the safest, is: We don’t really know. More specifically, we don’t know whether these particular crimes would have occurred in the absence of Trump’s hateful and vicious rhetoric (including his enthusiasm for the despicable cry, “Lock her up!”).

But it’s also safe, and plenty reasonable, to insist that across the American population, hateful and vicious rhetoric from the president of the United States is bound to increase risks of violence.


To see why, we should investigate one of the most striking findings in modern social psychology that has been replicated on dozens of occasions. It goes by the name of “group polarization.”

The basic idea is that when people are listening and talking to one another, they tend to end up in a more extreme position in the same direction of the views with which they began. Groups of like-minded people can become radicalized.


For example, New Hampshire State Representative Al Baldasaro, a Trump supporter, said in a radio interview that “Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” Roger Stone, a Trump adviser, tweeted, “Hillary must be brought to justice — arrested, tried and executed for murder.”

If people are talking that way, there is an elevated risk that sooner or later, someone is actually going to try to kill her – and others whom the president treats as enemies of the people.

The problem is compounded by the contrast between the president’s demeanor in two different situations: when he is speaking of national unity and when he is on the attack against his supposed enemies.

When he speaks of unity, he seems scripted and insincere. He reads from a text. He is working. When he is on the attack, he is in his element. He needs no text. He is having fun. Everyone can see that.


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