America is not really a nation of laws. Our legislative system governs only the most egregious behavior. The way Americans treat each other day-to-day—attitude and etiquette, willingness or wariness, prejudice or tolerance—is driven mostly by our national culture.
Our culture is a set of beliefs, customs and behaviors accepted by the great majority of citizens, in part because they consider it a matter of right and wrong, and in part because they fear condemnation by society at large.
Since the end of the “segregation now…segregation forever” era, the open, unapologetic use of bigotry has been suppressed. But now, a presidential candidate is about to become the nominee of a major party in large part because people encourage his use of hate speech and falsehoods. For example:
● “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
● “Not…just Mexicans, I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country.”
● “I think Islam hates us… We have to get to the bottom of it. There’s an unbelievable hatred of us.”
● “There’s a serious, serious problem with the Muslims, and it’s got to be addressed.”
● “And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building [the World Trade Center] was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
● “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
● “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.” Referring to U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born in Indiana.
This is not a partisan issue. Republican Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who is as far to the right as any elected official, responded to Donald Trump’s slurs by saying, “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.” Surely, most Republicans are appalled by naked bigotry.
Up until now, those of us in the progressive community have generally believed that it was somebody else’s responsibility to push back against Trump’s hate speech. Throughout the long presidential primary season, surely it was the media’s job to call him out, or the task of other candidates in his own party, or the responsibility of Republicans in general.
But that time has passed. Over the next five months, our society will make a crucial choice: Will we accept, and even reward the open, unapologetic use of hate speech?
If we allow Donald Trump to radically alter our national culture, to make the unacceptable acceptable, it will be nearly impossible to change it back. Crudeness and bigotry will become mainstream—the new normal. We will see candidates for every office imitate Trump’s tactics. Formerly marginalized groups dedicated to nativism and white supremacy will flourish.
Millions of Americans will join the ugly mob, for bigotry is never far from the surface of civilization. Of course, the hostility unleashed will not be confined to Mexicans and Muslims; it will be directed at everyone who looks or thinks “different,” including Jews and African Americans, as well as pacifists, feminists, and anyone else who defends fundamental fairness.
In short, if we allow the cultural legitimization of crude insults directed at any group, every other group will later become victims. We will live in a frighteningly different kind of America, one that has turned its back on its most cherished values: freedom, opportunity and security for all.
Bernie Horn is the Senior Director for Policy and Communications at the Public Leadership Institute.