Words can inspire. But they can also be dangerous.
Words on Fire author Helio Fred Garcia spells out why and how President Trump’s rhetoric is reckless and perilous.
I’ve personally experienced Garcia to be a great teacher, and that skill shows in this new, easy-to-read and interesting book.
After laying a firm foundation of how political language—sometimes intentional, sometimes just rash and heedless—inflamed some already grim circumstances in recent decades, Garcia turns to how Trump uses language to divide and frighten, to demonize his critics and build political power with no thought about long-term consequences.
Garcia concludes Trump doesn’t intend to incite violence but also doesn’t feel responsible or particularly concerned when (not if) it occurs. Standing in the spotlight, feeling important, being powerful is what counts to Trump. And if his language motivates what Michelle Obama calls “wingnuts and kooks” to violence, well, it isn’t Trump’s fault.
Except that it is.
Garcia writes about the positive power of language in a way that makes us thirst for the inspiration John F. Kennedy provided when he established America’s goal of landing a man on the moon (“that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”), that Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered at the height of the Great Depression (“This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper”), that Winston Churchill delivered when Germany appeared ready to invade England (“…victory, however long and hard the road may be…”).
This book documents how Trump’s tactics debase our democracy, lower our civility and put people at risk. But it also gives engaged citizens the tools to identify menacing and alarming political language, even if it’s only mindless or negligent, and to hold our leaders accountable.
Garcia masterfully describes the downward slope of electronic journalism over the past 25 years and its role in rewarding politicians if they say and do things that help build an audience.
Cable news, in search of eyeballs, gave Trump billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime in the months leading up to his nomination and election four years ago. I sometimes wonder if CNN, no longer a straight news outlet, isn’t today guilty of over-compensating with its harsh coverage of Trump, perhaps trying to do a “make-good” for coincidentally helping him win the White House.
Garcia generously credits other academics with the research and thought they’ve given to this subject. I loved how he quoted Marvin Kaplan’s 2007 summary of what cable news is especially good at covering: “Trapped miners, Michael Jackson, runaway brides, missing blondes, Christmas Eve murders, Prince Di, Paris Hilton, hurricanes, Tsunamis, disinformation, whiz-bang graphics, scary theme music, polls, gotcha, HeadOn ads, ‘Thanks for having me,’ people who begin every answer to antagonistic questions with ‘look,’ people who say ‘I didn’t interrupt you while you were talking,’ and anchors who say ‘We’ll have to leave it there.’”
Yes, that was written 13 years ago. Cable news has only gotten even more unhealthy and disgraceful with people like Sean Hannity, Lawrence O’Donnell, Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough compounding the polarization that so troubles our nation.
But Trump and his words are the focus of this important book. Our nation suffers from a deep political, social and moral divide. Trump, Garcia writes, is not the cause, but he is the intensifier.