RICHARD BUTLER Trump’s Weapon of Choice: Animus

Aug 9, 2019

It is widely believed that Trump’s continually expressed animosity towards black and brown people, particularly Mexicans, his description of immigrants/asylum seekers as constituting an invasion of the US, an “infestation”, caused the mass murder at El Paso. Trump’s animus dominates virtually all of his rhetoric, towards every subject; from China, the EU, the media, Iran, nuclear arms control, to every issue in US domestic politics and, every action by the Obama administration. This is a dangerous pathology and, in the context of the Alliance, our Government is being pressed to further subscribe to it, with respect to China.

There were three major events in US politics, yesterday: Trump’s visits to Dayton and El Paso, the sites of the mass murders, 3 days earlier; denunciation of the role the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell has played in preventing gun control; a quantum leap in recognition in the community and the media of Trump’s toxic role in spreading division and animosity across the US. These are US domestic issue but they have implications beyond the US.

As usual, following a mass shooting in the US ( a “mass murder” is defined as a single event in which at least 3 people are murdered), it is asserted that this one will be the “turning point”, for gun control, for example, only for it to become clear, literally within days, that nothing will change. Yesterday, indeed, did look and feel different, but only the brave would predict that it will prove to be the turning point.

Shortly before he started shooting, the murderer in El Paso published a manifesto on his actions in which he used Trump’s language: invasion by, infestation of Mexicans. So, major statements were made by leading political figures, holding Trump responsible for these events. Justice Department and FBI analyses show that the incidence of such shootings, now characterised as domestic terrorism and, based largely on white supremacy movements, has increased significantly since Trump has been in office. There have been 249 mass shootings so far, in 2019.

Renewed public demands for immediate action on gun control have been widespread and vigorous. McConnell’s action in refusing, for over two years, to allow Senate action on relevant bills passed by the House has been at the centre of this. He is identified as having been bought, through campaign contributions, by the NRA. It is being demanded that he recall the Senate from its summer break, to pass those bills.

In his initial reaction to last weekends mass shootings, Trump rejected that the availability of guns had anything to do with them. He referred instead to other factors, such as; the role of the media, mental illness, the content of video games. This depressingly common and numbing stance ignores the reality that there are 393 million guns in private hands in the US, that is, 120.5 per 100 residents.

If Trump’s visits to Dayton and El Paso were intended to address the political problems the shootings raised, they were a pathetic failure. He visited injured people in the hospitals and spoke with Police and EMS personnel. He made no public appearance or statement. His staff kept him away from groups gathered publicly. They included people carrying signs objecting to his policies and his visit to their city. He saw none of that. Incredibly, he did not visit the sites of the shootings.

After he left Dayton, the Mayor and Ohio Senator Brown, who had met with Trump and made representations to him on gun control, gave a press conference describing Trump’s visit in polite terms. En route to El Paso on his aircraft Trump twittered attacks on the Mayor and the Senator, misrepresenting what they had said. Reaction to his conduct has been deeply critical.

A majority of Americans think Trump is unfit for his office and is doing the country ever increasing harm. It is also clear to all, that his most determined effort, his most assiduously pursued objective, is not to govern, but to conceal what appears to be his extensive illegal activities. The latter are under challenge in the courts, as the result of Congressional subpoenas. In particular, his tax returns and banking records are being sought and, his actions to obstruct justice are being examined. Recall that Robert Mueller has testified that were Trump not President, he would have issued multiple indictments of Trump, on obstruction of justice.

A challenging development is legislation in California which provides that for the next election, all candidates who wish to be on the ballot will need to make public the last five years of their tax returns. Trump appears to face a choice. If he wants to be on the ballot in California and thus have the chance of winning California’s 55 Electoral College votes he will have to face exposure of his finances. If he does not want that and given the strength of his overall efforts to prevent this, he may well decide not to be a candidate in California. That could be crucial to the outcome of the election. Current polls show the most likely outcome in 2020 is that he will not win the popular vote, as was the case in 3016, ( H Clinton beat him by 3 million) but could, again, win in the Electoral College. But, maybe not, without California. 270 votes are needed for victory. In 2016 Trump won 304.

Trump’s major political tool is his “Make America Great Again” rallies. In these he preaches, or rather shouts, to his choir. Since his election he has held 83 of them. They have been the occasion of continuous lies, and deployment of his abiding rhetorical device: animosity. He seems to praise virtually no one, but himself which he does ceaselessly, but is unstinting in the animosity he sprays all-around.

Authors in the US have been cautious in referring to the obvious parallels between Trump and his conduct and, that of the Hitler crowd in Germany in the 1930’s. It seems that the comparison has been too sickening to contemplate and, it must be acknowledged that caution on this issue is sensible because of the extremity of what is at issue. Madeleine Albright’s book; “Fascism: A Warning”, was clear yet careful, in her warning.

I watched, recently, Leni Riefenstahl’s film “Triumph of the Will”, the propaganda film Hitler asked her to make on the 6th annual rally of the Nazi party, held in Nuremberg in 1935. I hadn’t looked at it in probably 40 years and, that distance, plus having seen extracts of Trump rallies, including the recent Florida rally where the chant “send them back” featured, was simply, shocking. There are differences. In particular, there have not been troops at Trump’s rallies, where there were at Nuremberg, ( I leave aside Trump’s expressed fantasy of wanting a major military parade in DC), but the rhetorical methodology and atmosphere between the two podiums; at Nuremberg and somewhere in Trump country USA, is virtually identical. And, its irresistible to note that Trump’s body language and posturing on the podium seems an amalgam of Il Duce and der Fuhrer. This comparison with Trump’s posturing, cajoling of admiration from the mob, and that of Mussolini, is not original, on my part. His Mussolini-like strutting has caught the eye of a number of commentators.

I have asked myself repeatedly how is it that the great and the good of the US allowed Trump to get into the White House. After all, they have always, at least in New York, regarded him as a tasteless oaf, and a crook in his real estate and business activities. The answer is that they enabled him because it suited their interests, in spite of what they thought of him. Germany of the 1930’s, again provides a parallel. Erik Larson’s book; In the Garden of the Beasts” ( 2011 ), describes vividly the experience of William Dodd, FDR’s first Ambassador to the Reich, particularly the way that German industrialists and major companies enabled Hitler, a man they elementally despised. Those Junkers came to regret it. Their modern US counterparts seen to be heading in the same direction.

But, what of the Morrison government?

It is plainly being urged to join the US in its ever increasing hostility towards China; and, in its possible aggression against Iran; and, to allow an expansion of US military deployments in Australia. We have no fight with either China or Iran, indeed, we have a profound interest in managing for ourselves, our relations with both of them, particularly our trade relations.

We should call out US misrepresentations of Iran’s conduct under the Iran nuclear agreement and, more widely, reject John Bolton’s relentless efforts to undo all nuclear weapons control agreements; something with which he can only get away with because his boss( who recently threatened nuclear annihilation of Iran, DPRK and Afghanistan), has nothing but an action movie level conception of nuclear weapons, but much more fundamentally, is deeply attached to animus, as his weapon of choice.

Since the disastrous Vietnam period, we have managed our alliance relationship with the US with ever increasing sycophancy. Policy makers on both sides of politics have routinely exaggerated the harm that would come to us, were we to behave more independently. Given the disarray within the US domestic polity, the outcome of which is not clear, our ally has become a source of danger to us. We need to think again.

A world view which places animus at the centre of both our assessment of the attitudes of others towards us and, our own policy decisions and defence postures, should be rejected. It is a stance which authors its own failure.

A concluding dip into history, this time, American history.

In his second inaugural address, following a devastating Civil War, Abraham Lincoln pledged: to govern:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all”.

That was 154 years ago; not a hint of animus, but a light year distant from Donald Trump, who is today, toying with the same societal antipathies and anxieties which drove the Americans to Civil War.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, New York; and served as deputy Head of Mission in the Embassies in Vienna and Bonn/Berlin.

Professor of International Affairs
New York

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