Wednesday, 30 September 2020 13:04

OPINION: Words matter

Written by
Rate this item
(3 votes)

Our words matter to our friends, family, peers, and co-workers. Our words form the basis for our reputation and respect. They also form the basis of our trustworthiness.

And any parent knows that words, in all their intricateness, matter to their children, and children know how to test the limits of those words.

“Quit touching your sister,” a parent might say. Your kid, with his finger mere microns away from his sister’s face, might respond, “I’m not touching her.” Children know how to abuse the words of an ambiguous phrase. Trust me, I was a child once.

But as much as our words matter, the president’s words matter to a degree much greater than you or I have ever experienced. One errant phrase can set off a national security catastrophe. Give hints to a top-secret weapon and your enemies now have an advantage. The same goes for intelligence gathering capabilities or locations of assets. Break a promise, and international credibility plummets. The president’s words also matter to radical groups that may use those words as sanctions for their cause. Say something that upsets Islamic terrorists, and a reporter gets beheaded. 

But the president’s words matter to one group above all else: the American citizens. The president’s words set the tone for our country. They help us in mourning. They help us in hope. They help us develop a united dialogue. But above all else, their words help us define what it means to be American and what America represents.

Lincoln did it after the immense loss of life at Gettysburg. He said:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Reagan did it after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in flight in which millions of Americans and school children were watching live. President Reagan said:

“The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them…. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

George W. Bush did it right after 9/11, when he was talking on ground zero several days after the attacks. An onlooker said, “We can’t hear you.” George W Bush replied, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” 

There is one thing in common with all of their words: they bring us together as Americans. Their words reinforce the idea of what America is and represents. They give us faith. They are emotional words. They are heartfelt words. They are hopeful words. I get choked up when I hear them.

However, today is different. Our current president does not unite the American people. His words represent a corrupted patriotism in which he only speaks to his supporters. His framing implies that his supporters are the only “true” patriots. To him, all others represent a deep-seated hatred for America.

Unlike you or I, the president’s words carry tremendous weight. 

During the far-right Charlottesville protests of 2017, the protestors chanted “The Jews will not replace us.” It doesn’t take much looking to know that Neo-Nazis and white supremacists were present. Eventually, a far-right protestor rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters killing one and injuring 19 others. Two full days later, President Trump held a press conference. He said, “…you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Very fine people? Are those anti-Semitic protestors included in this group of “very fine people?” They probably think so.

People may point to the fact that Trump did actually condemn these protests, but let’s pay attention to the timeline of his statements. It took him two full days to condemn the racism. Shouldn’t it be automatically condemned on the spot? Do we really need to check the facts on this? Is racism fine sometimes? 

But maybe you think that his words were enough. The evidence simply does not support that fact. The KKK and David Duke support Donald Trump. Perhaps you even know a racist that supports Trump. Does it seem like his words are slowing them down? 

If that’s not convincing enough. Let’s look at another scenario.

During a Florida rally in May 2019, Trump was talking about illegal immigration. “This is an invasion,” Trump said, “How do you stop these people?” Someone from the crowd yelled, “Shoot them!” What did Trump do? Trump laughed and said, “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.” Think about this. Our president is encouraging violence in the form of vigilantism. He is appealing to the worst instincts of radicals.

Maybe you still don’t think his words matter. Maybe words are just words and nothing more. Let’s go a little further.

A few months later in August 2019, a Walmart was shot up in El Paso, Texas, in which 23 people were killed. The shooter was an avid Trump supporter and wrote a manifesto that referred to a “Mexican invasion.” This “Mexican invasion” sounds awfully similar to Trump’s statements just months before.

It goes even further. The shooter of Christchurch in New Zealand in March 2019, also posted a manifesto. In it, he showed admiration for Trump as “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

Maybe you still aren’t convinced. What about Trump’s supporters in Portland who showed up with paintball guns and tear gas and drove in a long parade with Trump flags? Surely these people find Trump’s words as sanction.

So, what are presidents and political leaders supposed to do? Let’s look at John McCain.

At a rally in 2008, John McCain was asked questions by his supporters. One woman stated that “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, he’s an Arab.” McCain, visibly distraught at the question, responded, “No ma’am. He is a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. He’s not [an Arab]. Thank you.” 

John McCain understood that he, as a high-ranking political leader, has a responsibility to tame the radical notions of his supporters. He understood that a large, free society cannot function properly with radicalized groups. He knew that he should not reinforce conspiracy or suspicious tendencies among his supporters. 

The culmination is this. John McCain, as do all political leaders, have a responsibility to tame the radical notions of their supporters. He knew that he could not and should not allow radical notions to reach critical mass. Ask yourself, is this something that we have ever seen Trump do?

Alex Auman is a Richmond Country native. He currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. He writes about politics, ideas and current events.