We citizens often struggle to sort out what Donald Trump and his administration mean. When they call the press the "opposition party" and "enemies of the American people," do we pass it off as typical political posturing (albeit with an edge), or do we call out the militia to defend the First Amendment? Some friends dismiss such Trumpisms as random crazy-talk. Others, taking him deadly seriously, always see the worst. As filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted recently, "He lies about ppl & facts. But when he says I'm gonna ban Muslims or grab pussy or gut the EPA, he's the most honest president since Lincoln."
I'm coming to believe Trump's ambiguity happens by design. Trump and his people dog whistle – with a twist. They convey one message to a general audience. But they communicate something else entirely to his most racist, misogynist, and homophobic supporters. For example, Trump will say he’s concerned about African Americans; after all, he’s “the least racist person that you have ever met.” Such claims aim to soothe the consciences of people who don’t want to consider themselves racist. Then Trump says blacks should support him because he’ll fix the “burning and crime-ridden inner cities.” To some, it sounds like Trump cares. On the contrary, he’s reducing African Americans to a demeaning stereotype. Trump has never bothered to learn how black people live. Black people know it, and white racists know it. As Bryce Covert puts it,
No matter how well this may play to white supremacists who believe that black people live wretched, crime-ridden lives, it simply doesn’t line up with the facts.
To a general audience Trump comes off as well-meaning if a bit clueless. Others hear him just fine.
These things happen over and over again.
Ponder this Trump quote from the inauguration:
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
First, it's not possible to do what Trump promises to do. Our military and diplomatic leadership all agree that complete eradication of terrorism is impossible. For that matter, eradication language is counter-productive. For every terrorist you kill, you create several more. When you stigmatize a group of people, most of whom are simply decent people in the way that most people are, you create resentment.
Journalists typically respond to Trump at this level, claiming he lacks a thorough understanding of global affairs, of effective policy, you name it. Trump thinks he can go directly to war with ISIS and win a clean victory. He's wrong. In a public admonition to Trump, over 100 retired generals shared the more sensible view:
We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone -- from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability.
I believe there's a second and more sinister level to Trump's promise. What do the white nationalists hear? Does Trump distinguish between "radical Islamic terrorism" and the Islamic Center down the street? Has he ever demonstrated he believes there's a difference between ordinary Muslims and terrorists? No, Trump wants his followers to believe he, and we, are going to war against Islam? Islamophobes hear the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.
This is hardly a charitable take. Admittedly, it sounds a little crazy, even paranoid. Let's look deeper.
Trump chose former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon as his chief political strategist, a fact we don't take seriously enough. Clearly and repeatedly, Bannon has articulated the conviction that "we" are at war with Islam. He’s described “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam,” linking resistance to ISIS with Muslim advances on Tours in 732 and Vienna in 1529. Bannon’s values center around what he calls “the Judeo-Christian West,” a concept thoroughly steeped in white cultural identity and supremacy. Bannon’s battle isn’t just with ISIS and terrorism, it’s a battle of European “Judeo-Christian” identity against Islam.
Show me one reason to think Trump’s views differ from those of Steve Bannon. When Trump promises the “eradication” of Islamic terrorism, give me one reason to think he can discriminate between terrorists and the three million Muslims who already live in the United States.
Read in this second way, Trump’s promise looks like a desire to eliminate Islam. I take it that way. I know his alt-right believers will take it that way. No, Trump won’t be able to stage an East versus West war on Islam, the kind of thing Bannon likes to imagine. But responsible citizens must be alert. The recent spate of anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic violence is no accident. Zealots are hearing Trump’s double messages, and they feel emboldened as a result.