One of the world’s experts on why people do bad things to each other thinks we should leave out the words “hate” and “racism” when talking about how President Donald Trump may be inspiring white supremacy and violence.
It’s not that those concepts are necessarily absent from the equation. It’s just that philosopher David Livingstone Smith thinks they’re not what’s primarily at play here, and spending most of our time talking about them leads us away from what’s really going on.
The operative word, Smith, founding director of the University of New England’s Human Nature Project says, is “dehumanization.”
Primarily, that involves labeling minorities as animals or devils, rapists or other fiendish criminals, often enough that they tend to appear more like those things than like people.
Telling people to go back where they came from? That works too, Smith said.
Dehumanized people are easier to deprive of their rights, and easier blamed for problems they may have nothing to do with. And they’re easier to kill.
People don’t naturally tend to murder. As long as minorities are considered fellow people, they’re unlikely to be targeted, Smith maintains. When they’re not, all bets are off.
Dehumanization is the subject of Smith’s chilling 2011 book, “Less Than Human.” He describes how Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and many others, used speeches and propaganda to turn minorities into scapegoats, and then, victims of genocide.
Smith didn’t equate Trump with Hitler when he talked to me recently. But he made no bones about saying that they shared some very bad habits.
Just as Hitler took advantage of a general wariness about Jews and other minorities in Germany, there were many Americans who feared Hispanics long before Trump started calling them rapists, drug dealers and animals.
“I don’t think he has created anything. But he certainly emboldened people,” Smith said. “People understood that it wasn’t socially acceptable to say certain things in public. Trump has kind of given them permission to say what they think.”
It’s a heady feeling to find that your most hidden, guilty thoughts are OK with the world. “It’s the crack cocaine of the mind,” Smith said.
“Speech encourages action. Some of the episodes of violence need to be attributed in part to his behavior,” Smith said about Trump, the day after a young man traveled over 600 miles to El Paso, intending to, apparently, kill Mexicans. Twenty-two people died there.
The emotion behind those who most want to expel Hispanics from the United States is not hatred, but fear, Smith said. “Terror of these brown people taking over follows a very important theme in genocidal violence.”
Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, in a fall, 2018 book, also accused Trump of dehumanizing rhetoric.
“In the cases of Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and contemporary Myanmar, the victims of ethnic cleansing were subjected to vicious rhetorical attacks by leaders and in the press for months or years before the regime turned genocidal,” he wrote. “With these precedents, it should concern all Americans that as a candidate and as president, Donald Trump has publicly and explicitly insulted immigrant groups.”
The name of Stanley’s book is “How Fascism Works.”
Many of us were hopeful that after a week of carnage in three cities, Trump would sincerely try to bring us together.
“He could be immensely helpful,” Smith said before Trump’s speech. “But things have gone so far that he would have to make a real concerted effort to change the tone, and that would alienate a considerable portion of his base.
“It’s psychologically impossible for him. He can’t admit errors, can’t pull back. He’s got to win all the time.”
The next day, Trump spoke to the nation, and Smith wasn’t pleasantly surprised.
“Trump’s speech was perfunctory,” Smith said via email. “He referred to white supremacy precisely once, and spent a great deal of time talking about video games and mental illness, both of which are irrelevant, in my estimation. He said not one word about the contribution of his own toxic rhetoric to the situation (of course).”
Mental illness, Smith maintains, is a red herring. Defining mass murderers as mentally ill tends to absolve all other factors.
Mental illness is a condition, one that millions of peaceful Americans suffer from. It’s not a motivation.
It’s also counterproductive to dwell on hate, Smith said. He wrote in his new book, “On Humanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It,” to be released in the spring of 2020, that it’s “common to think of dehumanization as motivated by hate. This is a serious mistake.
“Dehumanizing propaganda trades mostly on desperation, fear, and the longing for salvation.”
Racism doesn’t directly come into play in Smith’s theory, either. Not even with Hitler.
Smith, in an essay, described Nazi speechmaking methodology, as seen by English psychoanalyst Roger Money-Kyrle in 1932. He outlined three stages of what he called a “mass psychosis” induced upon the audience, perpetrated by Hitler and his chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
In the first stage, they depressed the crowd, calling Germans a laughingstock for how far they had fallen since The Great War.
The second step identified a scapegoat group as being responsible. Smith quoted Money-Kyrie: “Then for the next 10 minutes came the most terrific fulminations against Jews and Social-democrats as the sole authors of these sufferings.”
The third phase involved whipping the members of the crowd into frenzied acceptance of their role in creating a future paradise: “This Paradise, however, was only for true Germans and true Nazis.”
After learning about the stages from Smith, journalist Gwynn Guilford followed Trump for three days of rallies during his 2016 campaign. In her story in the online journal “Quartz,” she wrote, “I went through the many reams of observations I scribbled down reflecting on the Trump rallies. Nearly every paragraph fit Money-Kyrle’s sequence.”
Different details, same framework, she wrote.
Smith doesn’t think that calling Trump a racist will change much because it’s too easy for him to just deny it.
But calling him, or anyone else, on the specific things they say and do would have more effect. That, and supporting responsible media organizations that can do the same.
But the train has already left the station.
“I think that the situation is very dangerous,” Smith said. “The genie has been let out of the bottle, so even if Trump loses in 2020, the nation will be in trouble. In fact, I think that Trump losing will swell the ranks of white supremacists more than if he wins.
“And if he wins, God help us, too.”