Personal insults could become the new normal in US election year

MANIK MEHTA
Published 15.08.2019 00:25

Tempers on both sides – the Republicans or, to be precise, President Donald Trump, on one side, and the growing ranks of opponents among the Democrats, with four new freshmen Congresswomen, on the other – have been flying for weeks and months, with loud, often uncontrollable bursts of verbal fire exchanged between the two sides.

The four new Democrats, who have been grabbing headlines since their election to Congress in January, have criticized Trump's views and actions on several issues, particularly ethnicity and treatment of minorities, immigration, etc.

The four freshmen, called "the squad," are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All were born in the U.S. except for Omar, who came to the U.S. as a child after fleeing Somalia with her family.

Trump routinely tongue-lashes the four but his recent criticism assumed a new level of severity when he, at a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina on July 17, criticized them for their "extreme positions" and asked them to leave the country, alluding to their ethnicity, although all four are U.S. citizens.

Calling them "hate-filled extremists, who are constantly trying to tear our country down," Trump told the cheering crowd in the state – North Carolina is a swing state he won in 2016 and is trying to claim again in 2020 – that the four Congresswomen "never have anything good to say." "That's why I say, 'Hey if you don't like it, let 'em leave, let 'em leave,'" he said, adding that the four distorted and misrepresented facts.

Somalia-born Omar, who wears the traditional hijab, received the brunt of Trump's criticism, which was accompanied by a "send-her-back!" chorus from the crowds. Omar, appearing defiant, tweeted back a line from Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" quoting: "You may shoot me with your words… but still, like air, I'll rise!"

Trump also referred to the vulgar language of Tlaib who had used the "F-word" against the president though it must be said that Trump himself had also, on another occasion, criticized the probe into Russia's alleged involvement in his campaign as "bull…."

As for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Trump was dismissive, saying, "I don't have time to go with three different names," and rejected her complaints about dire conditions at migrant detention centers at the border.

Trump mocked Pressley by asking whether she was related to Elvis Presley, the American singing icon, but then turned serious and alleged that she thought people of color should "think the same."

Trump was very critical of Omar and even accused her, without elaborating or adducing any proof, that she took pride in al-Qaida.

Be as it may, the harsh tones among politicians seem to be getting harsher by the day as the nation prepares to get into election-campaigning mode. The four Democratic freshmen see Trump as a bully who wanted to "vilify" not only immigrants but also all people of color. The four claim they are fighting for their priorities to lower health care costs and pass a Green New Deal addressing climate change, and counter that Trump's attacks are a distraction and tear at the core of American values.

The Democrats have condemned Trump for his "racist comments" against the four freshmen, describing his remarks as "disruptive distraction" from a "callous, chaotic and corrupt" administration. Omar charged that Trump pursued a "white nationalist" agenda, while Ocasio-Cortez told the nation's children that "this country belongs to you;" Tlaib reiterated what she said elsewhere that Trump should be impeached.

'I don't have a racist bone in my body'

Trump, facing a chorus of critics from the Democrats and, also, from some Republicans, and fearing that he was being branded a "racist," tweeted "I don't have a racist bone in my body!"

House leader Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who initially maintained a low but dignified posture in the ongoing heated verbal exchanges between Trump and the four freshmen, has to navigate through tempestuous waters.

On the one hand, she cannot be seen as condoning Trump's attacks against "the squad," but on the other she realizes that the four need to rein in their language and tempers, and not engage in indiscriminately firing volley after volley in language that can be offensive and, eventually, lose sympathies for the Democratic Party and all that it stands for, particularly with an eye to next year's presidential elections.

As the House leader, she is keen to maintain her control and authority over the behavior of some of her peers while also criticizing Trump for his racist proclivity – she said he wants to "make America white again" – reflected in his remarks about the four.The sensitive race issue was again at the forefront as the nation was shell-shocked by four senseless mass killings within a span of three weeks by perpetrators who gunned down innocent people. Many say that Trump's remarks about colored people may have incited the perpetrators to commit these horrifying acts.

Some observers say that Trump is trying to divert public attention to "the squad" because it makes the four look like radicals who were bent on changing the American way of life. Indeed, Newt Gingrich, a former Republican House Speaker, recently speaking to the Fox & Friends TV program, believes that Trump was trying to get the country "to look at the so-called squad… the more he can get them to realize how radical they are and how fundamentally un-American their views, in the long run the better off he is."

While politicians hurl personal insults at each other, supporters and opponents of Trump have engaged in open physical assaults against each other. A Kentucky man, 29-year-old Daniel Frazier, punched a protester in the face during a rally for President Trump. The victim, 61-year-old Mike Alter, was protesting with a crowd outside the event when Frazier reportedly pulled up in a pickup truck and after confronting the former punched him multiple times.

But in a reverse case, a Trump supporter was badly beaten up last week by a gang in New York's Canal Street because the victim wore the red MAGA hat with Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again." Jahangir Turan, 42, who said he "loves" President Trump, was severely beaten up by over a dozen teenagers who hurled abuse at him during the physical assault. Turan suffered a broken cheekbone and a black eye.

While heated exchanges between rival parties during election campaign are not uncommon in any democracy, violent clashes can mar the democratic spirit. The U.S. is, of course, a shining example of a vibrant democracy, but there have been for some time disquieting signs that are incongruous with the democratic rules of mutual respect and tolerance.

Democracy functions best when people refrain from hurling personal insults or punches at each other. The frequency with which these incidents are taking place, raises fears that this could become the "new normal" in the world's strongest democracy. Let's hope that such a situation never comes to pass.

* New York-based op-ed contributor, expert on foreign affairs and global economics

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