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Fueling the Rhetoric Fire

December 1, 2016

History has a way of repeating itself. And not always for the better.

For instance, recently we’ve seen a good amount of attention given to a group that refers to itself as the “alt-right.” To some, this might sound like the name suggests, an alternate faction to the right wing of the Republican Party, but to those paying close attention, it’s obvious there is a very dark underbelly to this movement that has to be challenged head on.

The “alt-right” is a throwback to another time. It’s made up of white supremacists that are brazenly open about their desire for the United States to be a separatist nation – a white separatist nation – and have come out from the shadows, clearly feeling a sense of empowerment due to the election of Donald Trump.

And there’s no doubt this is because of the kind of rhetoric that candidate Donald Trump used throughout the 2016 campaign when discussing Mexicans, Muslims, women, and the LGBTQ community.

It was a populist appeal based on fear that obviously worked.  But rhetoric that fuels the fire often empowers folks to do bad things.

We saw this occur time and time again during the 1950s and 60s where the hateful sentiments of George Wallace, Bull Connor and other racist politicians enabled the Ku Klux Klan to commit acts of violence with free reign knowing they’d never be held accountable.  We know the most heinous – the murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church among so many others.  But it is the thousands acts of random assaults that created the fear in the black community and divided a nation.

It now seems that President-elect Trump has decided to double down on his campaign rhetoric as reflected in a few of the appointments assigned to cabinet positions in his upcoming administration. Two in particular stand out: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General and Steve Bannon, founder of the Breitbart news website, as his Chief White House Strategist. Both of these men have controversial backgrounds steeped in what many consider racist positions. Trump has told The New York Times that he would not have selected Bannon had he known of any ties to the “Alt-Right” but Bannon himself is on record as describing Breitbart as a “platform for the alt-right” to Mother Jones.  In 1986 Sessions was denied a federal judgeship by a Republican Senate based on allegations of racism which he vociferously denied.  It is no wonder that since there have been numerous reports from across the country of verbal and physical assaults against Latinos, Muslims and women. As I write this NBC is reporting that dozens of Muslim mosques received letters stating that Trump was going to do to them what Hitler did to the Jews.  As we lawyers say in Court, “I rest my case.”

Frankly, I don’t think Trump is truly a racist, just a Wallace like politician who will say anything to get elected. And I have known Jeff Sessions for 35 years and have never seen any evidence of the kind of racism or even racial insensitivity that he has been accused of.  But between the Donald’s campaign rhetoric and his recent appointments it’s not surprising to see how hate groups, including David Duke and a resurgent Klan, view these decisions as a signal of support for their intolerant agendas.

Recently Trump has tried to dial it back.  While being interviewed on 60 Minutes, he looked directly into the camera and said “Stop it” meant as a strong message to those involved in acts of hate. But is that enough? Not in my book. The President-elect and his appointees, and especially Attorney General designee Sessions, need to repeatedly denounce such people and forcefully say that racial and religious intolerance is not the new norm and will not be condoned or tolerated by a Trump administration. In the words of Barney Fife just “nip it in the bud” right now.

We are divided country in need of some serious healing.  As someone who has defended the rights of those targeted by hate, I can attest that healing can only begin when the protection for all to live in freedom is assured.

Only Donald Trump can prove his critics wrong and he needs to do so as soon as possible, even before Inauguration Day, if he ever hopes to bring the country together.