Why the “Trump Effect”?

By Heather Gray
Justice Initiative International
February 28, 2017

When Trump assumed the presidency some 5 weeks ago, and prior to that as well, we witnessed what is referred to as the “Trump Effect”. As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports in its “2017 Spring Issue” entitled, in fact, “The Trump Effect”: The campaign language of the man who would become president sparks hate violence, bullying, before and after the election”. Yes, it’s true that many of these “hate,” more often racist, sentiments toward the other have either been overtly expressed since Trump or have been simmering in many Americans just waiting for an opportunity for expression. Yes, it’s also true that, as one of “white” European descent, I need to note that we have a long way to go to rid the country, if ever, of the insidious and on-going “white supremacy” in the U.S. and the world. And I hope it will end!!! But I began to wonder, why it was that ‘what’ a leader of a country states can have such a treacherous response from many in the population at-large? Why is it that what Trump says emboldens hateful individuals?

The violence and hate speech, in fact, is largely not coming from migrants, as Trump and others try to insist, but mostly from “white” Americans who can be and more often are exceptionally dangerous now and historically.

As I began to explore this question of the “Trump Effect” it suddenly dawned on me that there were parallels with research I did in the 1980s around the issue of the death penalty.

In the 1980s I was engaged in a significant amount of work with the ‘Georgia Committee Against the Death Penalty’. I spent some time not only with inmates on death row but also with countless community activists for and against the death penalty. This included, not surprisingly, encountering the Ku Klux Klan at the Georgia Diagnostic Center south of Atlanta where executions take place in the state. Many of us would gather at the Georgia Diagnostic Center on the nights of an execution to express our opposition to the death penalty and solidarity with those on death row. Below is a portion of prose I wrote about this at a 1982 execution in Georgia:

I wanted to stop this insanity
This surreal madness.

Bluelights …officers…anxious, officious officers, their guns astride.
Flashlights everywhere.

They look in my backpack, under the car seats, in the trunk.
“Are you for or against?” I’m asked.
And I’m given a permit for the opposing side.

In the darkness we hold hands and sing Amazing Grace.
Across the road the Klan raises its ugly racist head
with chants of hatred that continue to echo.

In the darkness we continue to hold hands.
All this in the shadow of the imposing building
sanitized state immorality.

 What I discovered while organizing against the death penalty was that an execution of an individual was not a singular event. Its impact negatively reverberated throughout the community in countless ways.

I, in fact, discovered that some researchers had inferred that when an execution takes place there is often witnessed an increase in violence in the surrounding community. I began to study this phenomenon and wrote about this in a 2006 article entitled “The Spiral of Violence” that I partially quote below.

What I found in this research is relevant, I think, to understanding the “Trump Effect”.

Unknown to some, in addition to his work in central Africa with the Mbuti pygmies (for which he is probably best known) and with the Ik in Uganda, British anthropologist Colin Turnbull.also researched the death penalty in the United States.

In his 1980’s article “Death by Decree,” Turnbull reported on his study of the death penalty in Virginia and Florida. He had interviewed virtually everyone involved, including the death row inmates themselves and their families, the executioners and their families, the guards in the prison, and others. What he found was a “brutalization” of those who were associated with the death penalty.

Brutalization? In the aftermath of war, veterans often suffer from long-lasting horrors of their experience. Those surrounding and/or involved in the death penalty also suffer – their behavior is negatively impacted altogether by association with the brutality of the death penalty process. It takes its toll on their families.

In the case of the death penalty, the State has chosen to use violence as a way to resolve conflict. The State of Georgia even had planes flying over the Georgia Diagnostic Center while the execution was taking place in what seemed to represent a ceremonial acknowledgement of the State’s power of imposing death over life.

To add to Turnbull’s research on the brutalization of those close to the death penalty, a look at the Rosemary Gartner’s and Dane Archer’s fascinating international research adds considerably to an understanding of the broader impact. In “Violence and Crime in Cross-National Perspective” (1984) Gartner and Archer report, after studying 110 countries in the world, that, after war, violence increases in both the countries of the so-called winner as well as the so-called loser. They looked at every conceivable variable to explain the phenomenon. For example, they considered the “violent” veteran model, the economic destabilization model and others. While all these are important, the variable that had the most potent relevance was that, in war, the ‘State’ itself had used violence to resolve conflict. This filtered into the general population and gave the green light for the use of violence. It’s the age-old saying “violence leads to violence”.

Gartner and Archer recognized that sociologists have long understood that we learn behavior from our peers and family, but they had not considered enough how what the State itself does impacts on and teaches behavior.

For example, Timothy McVeigh who, in 1995, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, was also a Gulf War veteran. He knew about violence first hand. As Alexander Cockburn noted in his 2001 article “Real Violence and Tim McVeigh,” McVeigh’s favorite quote was by Justice Louis Brandeis: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or evil, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law.”

At the end of its 2017 report, the Southern Poverty Law Center stresses that:

Words Have Consequences

Four days after the election, Donald Trump was interviewed on “60 Minutes,” where he was asked about the hate. He said he was “surprised to hear” about it, and, looking into the camera, told the perpetrators to “stop it.” In another interview, he promised to “bind the wounds of division” that were afflicting our country.

 His comments were a day late and a dollar short. The hatred, and the new energy of the white nationalist movement, were predictable results of the campaign Trump waged — a campaign marked by incendiary racial statements, the stoking of white racial resentment, and attacks on so-called “political correctness.”

 A few weeks later, Trump acknowledged what he had not earlier. In a post-election speech in Orlando, Fla., part of his “thank you” tour, he responded to the crowd chanting “Lock her up” with this: “Four weeks ago, you people were vicious, violent, screaming, ‘Where’s the wall? We want the wall! … ‘Prison! Prison! Lock her up!’ I mean, you were going crazy. I mean, you were nasty and mean and vicious and you wanted to win, right? Now, same crowds … but it’s much different. You’re laid back, you’re cool, you’re mellow. You’re basking in the glory of victory.”

 Donald Trump is not legally responsible for any of this, of course. The people who engaged in legally punishable hate violence, if they are caught, are the ones who will have to actually pay for their crimes. But it seems undeniable that Trump’s reckless, populist campaign has left a legacy of hatred, violence and division.


I would add to the above statement by the SPLC, that while words have consequences, it is particularly so when the “words” are coming from a national leader. This requires immediate opposition from those who understand the impact of hateful speech as what is verbalized can and does, as referred to above, reverberate throughout the general population. Americans need to remember this in subsequent elections for both the safety of the country and the world.



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