Nevo: Agitator-in-Chief: Donald Trump is America’s biggest threat

Lily Nevo, Opinion Contributor

“Proud Boys – stand back and stand by.”

This was President Donald Trump’s response to moderator Chris Wallace asking him to denounce White supremacy during the first Presidential Debate on September 29. Unlike the myriad personal attacks weaponized on Tuesday’s debate stage, these words in particular rippled through televisions across the country as a stinging reminder that our self-proclaimed “law and order” president is not a symptom of racially motivated violence, he is the disease.

What happened on Tuesday was not an isolated event: Trump has a history of mutual support for White supremacists. Most vividly, these words are reminiscent of Trump’s response to the terrorizing 2017 Charlottesville, Va. rally, in which he stated that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Just one year earlier, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, had endorsed Trump during the presidential race.

But Trump’s encouragement of violence is not merely a campaign strategy. In 1989, Trump infamously bought full page newspaper advertisements demanding that the Central Park Five receive the death penalty for a murder we now know they had nothing to do with. Appearing just two weeks after the murder, the ad caused a shift in the public opinion towards the case. People were no longer mourning the death of the victim, but rather, they were actively seeking punishment for the boys in custody. In an era of high crime rates and poor race relations, the Black and Brown teenagers served as easy scapegoats for a city in fear.

Though it is difficult to say whether Trump’s ad reflected or shaped public opinion, it would be naive to think that many people who supported the boys’ sentences were not at least empowered by Trump’s words. Thirty years later, the Proud Boys seemed to celebrate the reference to them at the presidential debate, adding Trump’s quote to their logo and other merchandise.

Some will dismiss Trump’s comments as a panicked response in a moment under pressure, but his history suggests otherwise. In the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black Americans, the comment from the debate is yet another reminder that in Trump’s America, safety of Black Americans is not guaranteed. In Trump’s America, the justice system holds an officer accountable for the bullets that pass through walls but not for the ones that kill an innocent woman. In Trump’s America, some protesters have resorted to looting. In Trump’s America, violence rooted in centuries of desperation is unacceptable, while violence from the privileged is condoned.

Also in Trump’s America, we have seen an increase in the number of hate crimes. Data shows that following the election of polarizing candidates, hate crimes tend to spike. Following a record high number in 2008, the number of hate crimes per year generally declined. Between 2016 and 2017, though, the number of hate crimes per year soared by roughly 1,000 cases. The difference between 2008 and 2017 is that one president incites racial violence, and the other made it to the White House despite it.

Beyond failing to denounce White supremacy, Trump also subtly promoted another form of Reconstruction-esque violence: voter intimidation. “Go into the polls and watch very carefully,” Trump said during the debate. Though not explicitly encouraging voter intimidation, many of Trump’s supporters have already taken these words to heart at early voting stations, despite voter intimidation being a federal crime.

This comment is only the latest in a series of attacks towards the legitimacy of a pandemic election. Trump has repeatedly said that he will not commit to a peaceful transfer of power, pointing to the possibility of election fraud with mail-in-ballots Trump’s suggestion that he will not accept his loss poses a serious threat to American democracy. Even if this does not thrust the country into a full blown constitutional crisis, Trump’s statements will undermine the integrity of the vote for years to come. A pandemic election undeniably calls for creative changes to traditional voting methods, but this means widespread mail-in-ballots, not the descent into quasi-absolutism.

It has long been accepted that Trump does not abide by the rules of presidential etiquette, but the extent to which he demonstrated a disregard for the safety of the American people and legitimacy of the democratic processes is alarming. Regardless of whichever candidate emerges victorious on election night, America has lost this race. At best, political apathy and government distrust will soar, and the events of this year will leave us scarred. But at worst, the wounds of hatred and polarization will only continue to deepen, under another term with the agitator-in-chief.

Lily Nevo is a Weinberg Freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.