Populist movements like Trump’s start with incendiary rhetoric and end up destroying peaceful coexistence, undermining values and eroding democracy.
The thing with populist movements is that they always end up losing control of their power. The incendiary rhetoric that starts as out a means of attaining power ends up as a fire that at the very least destroys peaceful coexistence, undermines values and erodes democracy. It’s always been that way, and it doesn’t look like the neopopulist movements of the 21st century are going to change that pattern.
And yes, it always starts with rhetoric. In a country tired of “political correctness,” President Donald Trump chose from the start of his campaign to appeal to people’s most despicable impulses, be they directed against women, gays, blacks or immigrants. He’s said the streets are “infested” with members of this last group, whom he’s described as animals, rapists and criminals. He’s made millions of people not just into objects of his ire, but also individuals devoid of dignity, undeserving of the least bit of respect or compassion. Rhetoric is what helps dehumanize the “other” and normalize behavior and attitudes we had believed were eradicated from our communities.
United States immigration policy hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses for several decades now, but Trump’s “zero tolerance” doctrine and his zeal in applying it have brought us to the current situation. The separation of children and parents, based on a strict interpretation of the law, is nothing but an attempt by the U.S. administration to dissuade those who try to illegally cross the border. A bargaining chip like any other. Used unashamedly. Without caring that it involves the lives of thousands of human beings.
But the brutal images of children torn from their parents, and the unbearable sound of their cries, have been too much even for those most faithful to the president, from his wife, Melania, and his daughter, Ivanka, to the four previous first ladies, all of whom have spoken out against the policy.
At one point it may have seemed that the reaction provoked by the disgraceful way in which the crisis was handled could have consequences for Trump. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 66 percent of all voters are against the separation of families; 55 percent of those who favor Republicans, however, support it. And the decision to sign an order stopping the separation will surely shift attention away from this issue, even though it won’t be easy for the 2,300 minors already affected to reunite with their families.
Meanwhile, we’ll still cling to the hope that, at some point, one of these atrocities will end up blowing up in the president’s face. We’ll also have to trust that the November elections will put an end to the Republican majority in Congress. Maybe this way the party will start seriously questioning whether or not to keep supporting its improvisational leader.
Unfortunately, the misuse of rhetoric is becoming commonplace, not just in the United States. Today the far-right and xenophobic Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called immigrants “human riffraff.” We can’t let our guard down. We must keep condemning and speaking out against any attempt to normalize atrocities.