“It’s like the Civil War all over again.”
An American friend shared this sobering comment with me a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump. Raised on a small town diet of civil war history and re-enactments, she seemed completely at a loss to explain what was happening in her home country as we scrolled through news articles of protest, violence and hate crime.
Passionate division is not a new concept for the population of the United States. From the civil war to segregation to the one percent, the country has always struggled to concur on matters of ethnicity, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation and political ideology. Yet the year preceding the November 2016 Presidential election and the months following, have been peppered with shocking stories of vicious attacks, enraged mobs and violent protests on both sides of politics.
While Donald Trump’s election campaign gained momentum throughout 2016, people of minority and vulnerable groups began to feel increasingly threatened. As the anticipation and media propaganda of the election increased, so did the rates of reported hate crimes.
A hate crime is one motivated by prejudice. The victim is one targeted for their membership or perceived membership of a particular social group. The offenses can range from school ground bullying and vandalism to verbal and physical abuse. Two organisations collect relatively comprehensive data on hate crimes in the United States: the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) and the F.B.I’s Hate Crime Statistics. Both have found that the number and the aggressiveness of hate crimes in the U.S have steadily increased since 2015. The SPLC has also found that the number of hate groups and anti-government ‘patriot’ groups has also risen significantly in the same time. It seems as if anger, hatred and the willingness to show both are rising amongst the American people.
Many people have pointed to Trump’s campaign rhetoric as fuel for the rising levels of hatred in the country. According to the SPLC’s president, Richard Cohen, “white supremacists are celebrating, and it’s their time, the way they see it.”
When the newly elected President is endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, regularly encourages physical violence against protestors at his rallies, and the strongest opinion he can muster on the topic of violence in his name is instructing people to ‘stop it’, it seems little wonder that black students are feeling vulnerable in their classrooms, Muslim women are getting verbally abused on trains and Hispanic men are being severely beaten on the streets.
Donald Trump’s words wield significant power. They have inspired and moved millions of Americans. While many Trump supporters do not resort to violence, the media has been increasingly flooded with examples of Trump’s name used amid the violence of hate crimes. In defense of the beating of a homeless Hispanic man in Boston, two men declared that “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.” In Colorado, a twelve-year-old girl was told that “Now that Trump is President, I’m going to shoot you and all the blacks I can find.” In Washington, a school cafeteria was filled with chants of ‘build a wall’. Three Californian mosques have received hate mail addressed to the ‘Children of Satan’ and stating that Trump will ‘cleanse American and make it shine again’.
Yet these frightening and sometimes violent crimes that are inspired by the President, are not the only ones that have marred the process of the self-espoused Greatest Democracy in the World. Violence and hate have come in equal measure from the Liberal side of politics.
During the campaign rallies, protestors from both sides dissolved into violence and aggression on several occasions. In Maryland a student wearing a cap saying Make America Great Again was hospitalised after he was physically assaulted by a group of his fellow students protesting against Trump. Another Trump supporter holding a flag and sign was sent to the emergency room after he was attacked and beaten by two men in Connecticut. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, protests against the new President turned violent in Washington D.C. Activists marched through the city, smashing shop windows, vandalising cars and chanting anti-Trump slogans. The president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute was flung into the media spotlight when he was punched by a protestor on camera during an interview. Police dispersed masked protestors with tear gas and stun grenades, and more than 200 people were arrested.
The United States has been in a state of hyper vigilance since September 11. Tensions have been on the rise and cracks have been widening between ethnicities, religions and political parties. The intense conflict between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the election campaign, and the subsequent election result, has seen these tensions explode in acts of hate, fear and violence across the country and even across the world.
Like many other Americans, my friend can only watch in horror and hope that the cracks do not shatter her country apart.