How a polarised United States benefits Donald Trump | columns | Hindustan Times
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How a polarised United States benefits Donald Trump

The quarter or third of Americans who steadfastly support Trump’s administration are unlikely to be upset by his behaviour. His incitement helps polarise Americans and strengthen his base of support

columns Updated: Dec 07, 2017 08:45 IST
US President Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast, Washington (File Photo)
US President Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast, Washington (File Photo)(NYT)

Living in New York, I’ve attempted to remove myself from the cycle of indignation, outrage, and resignation that seems to greet every action of United States President Donald Trump. The American president’s routine conduct has been, at best, embarrassing and, at worst, unprecedented in its incompetence and cruelty. It can be taxing constantly feeling this furious. Why let an insensitive or hypocritical tweet get you hot under the collar when you know another one is probably working its way through the rusting pipes of Trump’s brain? Why let yourself be provoked by the provoker-in-chief?

But it’s hard to tune out the most powerful person in the world.

Just take these examples from recent weeks. Trump grotesquely insulted Native Americans in the midst of a ceremony meant to honour their role during World War II. He brazenly attacked public figures toppled by accusations of sexual misconduct, even though he faces numerous credible accusations of similar behaviour. His childish salvos at North Korea have amplified the possibility of war, his carte blanche support for Saudi Arabia may make West Asia more volatile, and his claims to stand for the “forgotten man” have been comprehensively betrayed by a tax reform plan that promises to redistribute wealth upwards to the very richest Americans.

But a series of Trump tweets on November 29 pushed me from frustration to despair. Without any prompting, the president chose to ‘retweet’ three Islamophobic videos posted by a hateful, far-Right group in the United Kingdom called Britain First. The videos themselves should be beneath any decent person’s attention. They crudely try to paint all Muslims (and Muslim migrants to Europe) as a threat to western societies. It’s an awful and age-old tactic to demonize an entire group through exaggeration and distortion. And it was just endorsed by the American president.

The same account retweeted by Trump has in the past posted videos of Pakistani Britons celebrating a cricket victory, claiming that those brown-skinned men were cheering a terrorist attack in Paris. Britain First regularly conducts ‘Christian patrols’ where they march through Muslim neighbourhoods while carrying crosses. They’ve allegedly entered a mosque in London, handed a Bible to the receptionist, and stomped on prayer carpets. The group’s leaders face charges for religiously motivated harassment. Of course, when contesting local elections, they received barely 50 votes. They are fringe and hateful in every way, but the group is now revelling in Trump’s tacit backing.

Despite widespread condemnation, the White House has not apologised for or retracted those tweets. When it was brought to her attention that at least one of the retweeted videos was ‘fake’, the White House spokeswoman gave an astonishing response. “Whether it’s a real video,” she shrugged, “the threat is real.”

For an administration quick to describe criticism as “fake news,” it’s telling that they are unapologetic about using crude, malicious propaganda. Trump’s political standing depends on inflating the Muslim threat. He catapulted to power on a platform of white nationalism, a key plank of which was stoking passions about Muslims. For years, Trump has courted and been courted by the most prominent Islamophobes in the country. During the campaign, he invented stories about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks. He jumps to tweet in the wake of any Islamist attack, while remaining more reticent after other incidents of violence.

In this vein, it wasn’t necessarily surprising that Trump chose to endorse Muslim-hating videos. But it is remarkable that such a terrible and marginal group has been allowed the greatest pulpit.

Trump does benefit from his gaffes. With the investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia intensifying, without any significant legislative achievements, and with his approval ratings at record lows, the furore produced by his intemperate statements distracts public attention. He knows that a provocation like this doesn’t truly hurt him domestically.

The quarter or third of Americans who steadfastly support his administration are unlikely to be upset by his behaviour. Indeed, they enjoy the indignation of the press, the hand-wringing of supposed ‘coastal elites’. Trump’s incitement helps polarise Americans and strengthen his base of support. As his administration continues to struggle, it is likely that he will further fan the flames of white nationalism and channel this naked politics of hate.

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories.

The views expressed are personal