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If past is prologue

Of late I have found myself reflecting on a sentence written by Maya Angelou, which I paraphrase: If a person shows you who they are, believe them.

Should there still exist any doubt about who Donald Trump is, he has now shown us and I believe him. I do admit to being perpetually astonished, considering what has been revealed about this man, to include his unvarnished racism, which fails to give those who are referred to as his base pause.

Haven’t we all been watching the same movie, experiencing the same weekly chaos, weighing Mueller’s sworn testimony, counting how many aides have or will go to jail? How is it possible that our reactions are so profoundly different from one another?

Reaching for an example of cognitive dissonance, let’s begin with Trump’s most recent rally in Panama City Beach, Florida. Again he was standing at the podium, the MAGA crowd behind and before him. He began by explaining how agents on the southern border deal with undocumented crossers. He brought up the possibility of using deadly force, but quickly insisted he would “never do that,” then asked the audience, “But how do we stop these people? You can’t, there’s ... ”

Before Trump could finish his thought, a woman yelled out from below, “Shoot them!” Trump paused, a smile breaking across his face, and said, “That’s only in the (Florida) Panhandle you can get away with that, only in the Panhandle.” Laughter rippled through the audience.

Especially in the context of what would later happen in El Paso, this was an awful, stand-alone moment, chillingly prescient, just those two words, “Shoot them.” And Trump gave no protest or voiced even a hint of concern or opprobrium about the meaning behind those words and laughter.

But then his rhetoric when speaking about people of color has been embedded with a simmering vileness, barely disguised, beginning well before he came down that gilded escalator and announced his candidacy for president and spoke about Mexicans as rapists and criminals who were streaming across our southern border. Since then he has used, repeatedly, the word “invasion” (included in 2,000 Facebook ads). The brown people are coming — caravans of thugs, MS-13 gang members, and criminals.

And if you believe that white nationalists are not listening and are not triggered by Trumps riffs and rants, well, peruse the El Paso gunman’s (still alleged) posted manifesto: “If you use the word ‘invasion,’ it‘s not anti-Hispanic, it’s a fact.” Ditto the shooter who entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg having posted that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society “likes to bring invaders in to kill our people.” Using an AR-15, he killed eleven worshipers; seven were wounded.

For Trump, there is a through line from the Central Park Five, young men of color accused and then convicted of raping a jogger, later exonerated using DNA. It was Trump who took out a full-page NYT ad advocating they be put to death, for which he never apologized. Consider his anti-Obama Birtherism campaign; Charlottesville; the denigration of “the Squad”; recall the “Send her (Ilham Omar) back” rally chant; the “rat infested” Baltimore and Congressman Elijah Cummings tweet; and now the gunman arriving in El Paso, armed with an AR-15.

Language counts. Words matter. They reveal.

On the Monday following the Dayton/El Paso shootings, Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, died at the age of 88. I read her acceptance speech, which focused on the essentiality of language.

Morrison described the threat of those who have the power to wield language unwisely, or to kill it or loot it or use it to oppress. “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence. It is language that tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottomed-out mind.” Indeed. And so, if past is prologue we can expect little to change. Trump’s 2020 campaign narrative has already been written.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.

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