America has just lived through another presidential campaign week dominated by Donald Trump’s racist lies. Here’s a partial list of false statements: The United States is about to take in 250,000 Syrian refugees; African-Americans are responsible for most white homicides; and during the 9/11 attacks, “thousands and thousands” of people in an unnamed “Arab” community in New Jersey “were cheering as that building was coming down.”
In the Republican field, Trump has distinguished himself as fastest to dive to the bottom. If it’s a lie too vile to utter aloud, count on Trump to say it, often. It wins him airtime, and re-tweets through the roof.
This phenomenon is in fact nothing new. Politicians targeting minorities, foreigners or women have always existed in the culture. And every generation or so, at least one demagogue surfaces to fan those flames.
Here’s Donald Trump on Sunday: em”/emWhen the Syrian refugees are going to start pouring into this country, we don’t know if they’re ISIS, we don’t know if it’s a Trojan horse. And I definitely want a database and other checks and balances. We want to go with watch lists. We want to go with databases. And we have no choice. We have no idea who’s being sent in here. This could be the – it’s probably not, but it could be the great Trojan horse of all time, where they come in.”
Here’s Joseph McCarthy in 1950: “Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time, and ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down.”
Here’s Donald Trump last Tuesday: “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
Here’s George Wallace in 1963: “We must redefine our heritage, re-school our thoughts in the lessons our forefathers knew so well, in order to function and to grow and to prosper. We can no longer hide our head in the sand and tell ourselves that the ideology of our free fathers is not being attacked and is not being threatened by another idea … for it is.”
Trump relies on social media to spread his views. This is convenient because there’s no need to respond to questions about his fabrications. That makes it imperative that other forms of media challenge him.
Instead, as Trump stays at the top of the Republican field, it’s become a full-time job just running down falsehoods like the phony crime statistics he tweeted, which came from a white supremacist group.
Yet Trump is regularly rewarded with free TV time, where he talks right over anyone challenging him, and doubles down when called out on his lies.
This isn’t about shutting off Trump’s bullhorn. His right to spew nonsense is protected by the Constitution, but the public doesn’t need to swallow it. History teaches that failing to hold a demagogue to account is a dangerous act. It’s no easy task for journalists to interrupt Trump with the facts, but it’s an important one.