Grant Gambling, writer and podcaster from St. Louis, Missouri
American public life continues to be disrupted by controversies over identity politics. These fault-lines within a polity are the raw material for radicals to use for recruitment and other nefarious purposes. The inflaming of such divisions also provides a polarized environment that gives opportunities to nefarious external actors, who can exacerbate these differences to weaken and even destroy states. This problem does not only affect America. While it is Russia and China that mainly threaten the U.S. in this respect, the Middle East experiences this challenge mostly from Iran, which instrumentalizes minority populations to destabilize governments across the region.
Controversy in the U.S. was stoked, yet again, by President Donald Trump, whose tweets over the summer were, first, directed at “The Squad”—four female Democratic congressmen of colour whom Trump told to “go back” home—and subsequently at Maryland Democrat, Congressman Elijah Cummings, also a person of colour. Not content with referring to Cummings’ district of Baltimore as a “rodent infested mess”, Trump came back a second time to mock Cummings for having his home broken into. It is not as if Cummings’ district is without problems, but whatever satisfaction was momentarily gained by shaming his countryman in this way, it ultimately redounds against the President.
Because the President of the United States represents Baltimore just as much, if not more, than the person elected to represent that district of the city. The Commander-in-Chief represents Baltimore, and every other inch of American soil, with its 330 million inhabitants, to more than seven billion people across the planet.
Words might not offer a viable solution to fix a troubled city like Baltimore, nor any others like it—Detroit, Flint, San Francisco, or Denver—but it would be better if words were not used that create barriers to the cooperation necessary to begin to find a solution. By playing with racial identity, Trump is radicalizing situations that could otherwise be settled with compromise. A political solution is possible when the argument is about what people want; a solution is not possible once the argument becomes about who people are.
Trump is opening up an old gap in American society that is not only domestically damaging. Hostile foreign states can use the race wedge to pulverize American society. Tragically, the institution that should pacify the situation—the American media—is incapable of doing so because its incentives are so misaligned, centered around getting attention and therefore profit.
The racialized framing of events has been damaging even to Trump himself. The White House, for example, has made serious strides in criminal justice reform, retroactively lifting maximum sentencing for drug offenders that were disproportionately targeting black communities. Trump is unable to gain as much credit for this as he otherwise would because the prevailing narrative is that he is antagonistic to the black community.
These controversies go well beyond the media spectacle. Exploiting these kinds of grievances and the communities afflicted with them is not a new concept for foreign adversaries like Russia, China, or Iran; all have been doing it for decades. All three of these regimes use the suffering of aggrieved locals to influence their own agendas.
Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 Election could never have had any effect were there not already a radicalized situation in American politics. Iran doesn’t have the same kind of reach as China or Russia in America, but it has been expanding its subversive cyber-capacity in the West and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East against the Gulf countries and others, have likewise been expanding recently. Not to mention these kinds of dynamics are precisely what Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State seek out to expand their global influence. There is no need for the leader of the free world to serve it up on a platter like this and shine a light on it.
Theorizing that Trump is intentionally driving polarization and pushing people into the arms of radicals perhaps gives the president too much credit. Part of the problem is that Trump remains unaware of the power that his words have from the office he holds; the smallest phrase, however ill-conceived, now has an impact on the entire world, whether he intends it or not.
This current Republican Party is nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, who saw America as the shining city on the hill. But the present-day Republicans do not want to represent all parts of this metaphorical city. It can’t work that way. Reagan’s message was based on the Gospel of Matthew, 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” The very next verse says, “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” “Everyone in the house” would include Baltimore.
The “light” Reagan was referring to wasn’t meant to be used to shame or dehumanize people, which is something that does radicalize, but rather provide those communities the light to help them turn their situation around. Leaders who fail to govern for all segments of their populations are doing their enemies’ work for them.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.