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GUEST COLUMN: The Content of His Character: Reflections on Donald J. Trump on MLK Day

This is an excerpt from a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on Commpro.biz on January 18, 2021.

National Archives, Public Domain

Today we commemorate the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this day it is important to note that the man who for two more days is the sitting president has spent nearly a decade systematically attacking the very dream Dr. King described in his 1963 Lincoln Memorial Speech.

Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency were themed to evoke an America before the civil rights wins that began to dismantle some of the worst abuses of the Jim Crow era. And it happened right before our eyes, as Trump embraced white supremacist policies and normalized white nationalism.

And twelve days ago, on the Elipse just a mile from the Lincoln Memorial, Trump inspired a crowd filled with white supremacists to invade the U.S. Capitol, where some hoped to assassinate the Vice President and Speaker of the House.

That evening, after watching the Capitol assault on television, Trump told the attackers, “We love you. You’re very special.”

Dancing with White Supremacists

In my latest book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, I track what I call Trump’s dance with white supremacists. Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has followed a recognizable pattern: He signals to white supremacists, and they signal back. Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, has frequently referred to it as a “wink-wink-wink” relationship.

It began nearly ten years ago, when private citizen Trump addressed the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and declared he would run in 2012 to unseat President Barack Obama. He revived the long-discredited birther conspiracy that Obama was secretly Kenyan and Muslim. This got the attention of white supremacists. He continued pounding the birther theme for six years, straight through to the last month of his 2016 campaign.

White supremacists perked up even more in his 2015 campaign launch when Trump declared that Mexicans are rapists, when he called for a wall on the southern border, and when he later promoted a total and complete ban of Muslims entering the United States.

In early 2016 Former Klan leader David Duke endorsed Trump and urged his followers to volunteer for his campaign. He said, “Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.”

In late August 2016, Trump named Breitbart News co-founder Stephen Bannon to lead the Trump campaign. Bannon had previously said that Breitbart was the “platform for the alt-right.” The phrase “alt-right” was coined in 2010 by Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who later was one of the Charlottesville organizers, as a less menacing phrase for white nationalism. After the election Trump named Bannon his senior White House strategist. In this way, the alt-right had a direct channel into the White House.

God Emperor of White Supremacists

On the day Trump was declared president, white supremacists celebrated and took credit for putting him in office.

The Daily Stormer wrote:

“We won, brothers. All of our work. It has paid off. Our Glorious Leader has ascended to God Emperor. Make no mistake about it: we did this. If it were not for us, it wouldn’t have been possible… And the great news is, we’re going to be given credit for it.”

David Duke tweeted:

“This is one of the most exciting nights of my life -> make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump! #MAGA”

Richard Spencer tweeted:

“For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback. #Trump.”

Making Whiteness Great Again

Ten days after the election, in an auditorium of the Ronald Reagan Office Building several blocks from the White House, Spencer addressed the white nationalist group he ran. He said,

“We willed Donald Trump into office. We made this dream our reality. . .  And this Trumpian dream is only the beginning . . .  We demand to live in the world that we imagine… For us it is conquer or die. This is a unique burden for the white man, that our fate is entirely in our hands… That is the great struggle we are called to. We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace. We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet. We were meant to overcome—overcome all of it. Because that is natural and normal for us. Because for us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again.”

Spencer closed his speech with a rousing call,

“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory.”

Spencer raised a glass up high with his right hand, in an apparent toast. Members of the audience rose and gave a Nazi salute extending their right arm out to the front. One man gave the salute multiple times, shouting “Sieg Heil!” – literally, “Hail Victory” in German.

In August of Trump’s first year Richard Spencer, David Duke, and other white supremacist leaders organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Trump and others insisted that the Charlottesville protest was about the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. But it was much more.

On its website, The Daily Stormer admitted that the Charlottesville protest was not simply about a statue:

“Although the rally was initially planned in support of the Lee Monument, which the Jew Mayor and his Negroid Deputy have marked for destruction, it has become something much bigger than that. It is now an historic rally, which will serve as a rallying point and battle cry for the rising alt-right movement.”

One of the organizers, Michael Hill, president of the white nationalist group League of the South, tweeted to his followers:

“If you want to defend the South and Western civilization from the Jew and his dark-skinned allies, be at Charlottesville on 12 August.”

The Daily Stormer posted on its Facebook page:

“Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.”

“Battle cry” is not a casual reference. The Daily Stormer live-posted during the protest, including this:

“THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A WAR! WE HAVE AN ARMY”

After counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by a neo-Nazi, President Trump said that there was hatred and bigotry on many sides. The Daily Stormer wrote:

“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.”

Two days later President Trump said there were “very fine people, on both sides,” David Duke tweeted a thank-you to the President.

Daryl Johnson, former domestic terrorism expert at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, wrote a Washington Post column in which he noted the alignment of the white supremacist agenda and Trump’s policies and priorities:

“Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, militia extremists, and other radical right-wing zealots march side-by-side at pro-Trump rallies across the country. Trump’s endorsement of the border wall, the travel ban, mass deportations of illegal immigrants — these ideas were touted on white supremacist message boards merely 10 years ago. Now they’re being put forth as official U.S. policy. Such controversial plans have placated white supremacists and anti-government extremists and will draw still more sympathetic individuals toward these extremist causes along with the sort of violent acts that too often follow, like Charlottesville.”

Fifteen days before the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump declared himself to be a nationalist. He addressed a rally crowd and said,

“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am, I’m a nationalist, OK. I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word!”

The following year, when Trump called for four congresswomen of color to “go back to where you came from,” The Daily Stormer wrote,

“This is the kind of WHITE NATIONALISM we elected him for.”

The Final Days

Capitol police in the House chamber protecting members of Congress.

In Trump’s final days in office the twice-impeached president has said he will not attend the inauguration, which Twitter interpreted as,

“[E]ncouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.”

And now Trump has an army: groups of white supremacists – Proud Boys, Boogaloo movement, QAnon, and others – who are mobilizing to replicate what happened on January 6. The FBI is warning about possible violent armed attacks on the January 20 inauguration and on symbolic targets in all 50 states.

The Lincoln Memorial is locked down, as is the National Mall up to the Capitol, protected by fences, razor wire, and more than 25,000 national guard troops in full combat gear including automatic weapons.

The Dream, Deferred

Dr. King’s dream was that we would judge people by the content of their character.

At the end of the Trump presidency, we see that he fails the character test. The tone is set from the top. Trump has spent a decade trying to dismantle Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy. In his celebration of white supremacists and glorification of violence, he is the very antithesis of Dr. King.

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Interviewed on In House Warrior

On January 7, 2021, Logos president and author of Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, Helio Fred Garcia, spoke with Richard Levick on In House Warrior, the Corporate Counsel Business Journal’s daily podcast. Their conversation, which happened the day after insurrectionists attacked the U.S. Capitol, focused on the patterns of language that lead to violence. Garcia explained how the insurrectionists’ attack is just the latest in a long pattern of violence provoked by President Trump’s incendiary language. Listen to their full conversation here:

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Quoted in Christian Science Monitor

On January 7, 2021, Logos President and author of “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It,” Helio Fred Garcia was quoted in an article in Christian Science Monitor on his personal response to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionists on January 6. In the article, people from across the country react to the insurrectionists attack and reflect on what this means.

Below is an excerpt from this article:

Take the American story of Helio Fred Garcia. His family emigrated from Brazil in the 1960s. As a New York City debate champion in the 1970s he won a coveted spot as a congressional page during the Watergate summer of 1974.

He had come from a country with a military dictatorship, and when President Richard Nixon resigned, he thought there might be tanks in the streets.

“And it didn’t happen,” he says.

Six years ago, he attended a reunion of former pages at the U.S. Capitol. He felt a bit overwhelmed.

“When my wife and I were able to walk onto the House floor, tears ran down my cheeks – I’m tearing up a little right now,” says Mr. Garcia, now president of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group, and author of “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.”

So, unsurprisingly, after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building on Wednesday his emotions ran especially deep.

“I was heartbroken when I saw my sacred chamber being desecrated and attacked . . . For us, it really is a sacred place. It is a temple of democracy,” he says.

Read the full article here.

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Quoted in CNN

On the night of January 6, 2021, Helio Fred Garcia was quoted from his book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, in a CNN op-ed about the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

In Words on Fire, Garcia explains the pattern of how the president’s incendiary language inspires some people to commit violence against rivals, critics, and dehumanized and demonized groups. The CNN article notes how the storming of the US Capitol was part of this escalating pattern, and that the move by social media platforms to restrict or shut President Trump’s posts comes too late.

The article reads:

“In addition to lying more as he realized he could get away with it, [President Trump] also began to use more abusive language. As Helio Fred Garcia wrote in his 2020 book “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It,””over time, the frequency and intensity of Trump’s language (on social media as well as in speeches and with the media) changed. Without anyone or anything to stop it … he became more aggressive and his language more directly incendiary when discrediting his political rivals.” And, predictably, Garcia noted, after Trump insulted members of different groups, hate crimes against them spiked. So, let’s be clear: This is not the first time he has incited violence.”

Read the full article here.

GUEST COLUMN: American Exceptionalism: 2020 Didn’t Have to Be This Way

This is an excerpt from a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on Commpro.biz on January 4, 2021.

The first American case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on January 20, 2020.

Exactly one year later Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States.

What happened in the United States in between is different from what happened in other developed countries.

Twenty million Americans contracted COVID-19 between the first case and the end of the year.

2020 was the single deadliest year in American history. The first U.S. COVID-19 fatality was on February 6. By year end another 351 thousand Americans had died from the virus. For context, that is more than all the U.S. combat fatalities in World War II and Vietnam combined, but in a single eleven-month period rather than in the 24 years of those wars. For several weeks in December we were seeing the equivalent of a 9/11 casualty rate every day, with total 2020 COVID-19 fatalities equal to 118 separate 9/11 attacks.

Much of this was avoidable. And yet, here we are. So the question is – why did this happen?

Everything Changed

It was a year that changed everything: what it means to be “at work” or “at school”; how we visit the doctor; how we greet each other; how we shop for groceries and other goods; how we say goodbye to loved ones as they take their final breath.

It was a year of great trauma: medical, emotional, spiritual, economic, social.

And it was a year that saw great sacrifice and some of the best of humanity: in the front-line medical workers, in the agility of many companies to re-imagine their business models and their product offerings, in the emergence of a new class of heroes – postal workers, delivery drivers, and grocery clerks, who risked infection to keep us supplied.

And it was a year that intensified much that had already been fraying in the fabric of American civic life: hyper-polarization in politics, mistrust of each other and of civic institutions, and the shattering of social and political norms.

In the time of the pandemic we saw the explicit elevation and endorsement of white supremacist and conspiracist groups, such as the Proud Boys and QAnon. But also the largest civil rights protest in American history, with more than 25 million Americans marching in support of Black Lives Matter – and this in the days and weeks following the first wave of reopening after two months of stay-at-home orders.

After decades of one party discrediting science – from refusing to accept the reality of evolution, to redefining when human life begins, to denying the reality of climate change – we saw millions of Americans deny what scientists, public health experts, and their own doctors told them: that the virus is real, that it is deadly, that you can transmit it even when asymptomatic; and that masking, distancing, and handwashing are keys to prevention. The American population seemed to divide into those who believe what science teaches and those who choose not to. But as a popular T-shirt and internet meme noted, Science Doesn’t Care What You Believe.

The pandemic coincided with one of the most bizarre and contentious presidential election campaigns in American history, in which despite no evidence of fraud the sitting president refused to acknowledge defeat and lost more than 50 lawsuits challenging the results. And who for the eight weeks between the election and the new year seemed to give up on being president. He stayed out of sight and silent on anything having to do with the pandemic, even as fatalities approached the 350 thousand mark and infections soared to 20 million, and as he rage-tweeted about the so-called “massive fraud” that had prevented his re-election.

But the hardships were real and were devastating. In the weeks before and after Christmas, hospitalization rates reached record highs, with whole regions, including southern California, reporting zero intensive care beds available. At least one Los Angeles hospital started treating patients in the gift shop; another in a cafeteria; yet another in its chapel. But the real shortage was of medical personnel to treat the record number of patients. Doctors began talking about the need to choose which patients to treat, and which to leave to die.

The nation saw the infection rate grow by a million cases every few days. And despite pleas from public health officials and hospital front-line workers, Americans continued to travel for the holidays, risking what health workers called a surge on top of a surge. And some governors refused to require citizens to wear masks in public. Florida’s governor even forbade Florida cities and counties from requiring masks and social distancing in their jurisdictions. And the White House, the State Department, and other federal agencies held dozens of holiday parties indoors and without a masking requirement: yet more super-spreader events.

Incompetence

It did not need to be this way.

Much of the suffering, the hardship, the sacrifice could have been avoided. It resulted from a lethal combination of incompetence, dishonesty, and neglect.

The United States, alone in the world, intentionally refused to follow or mandate basic public health steps: a national masking, distancing, testing, and contact tracing policy. There was no whole of government response; at best there were fragments of government responses. And some parts of the government seemed to be at war against other parts. Indeed, some parts of government seemed to be at war against themselves, such as the White House Pandemic Task Force, where in a single press conference the politicians would contradict the public health experts, and vice versa.

The president and other senior government officials modeled the opposite of the public health guidelines, remaining unmasked in public and holding super-spreader events where the crowd was unmasked and packed close together – in violation also of local masking and distancing ordinances.

Continue reading here.

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Interviewed on Women Worldwide

On Friday, October 23, 2020, Helio Fred Garcia spoke with Deirdre Breakenridge of Women Worldwide about the power of communication to both ignite and inspire positive change, as well as provoke hurt, harm, and violence.
During their exchange, the pair spoke about Garcia’s journey to the field of communication, how communication can be used to either ignite the better angels in our nature or appeal to the very worst impulses within us, and key lessons from his latest book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It. Garcia also spoke about the ways that we have seen the continuation and intensification of the patterns he has outlined in his book in the past several months, including the spread of mis-information, the dehumanization of at risk groups, and more. They also spoke about how engaged citizens, civic leaders, and emerging leaders can hold people accountable who use incendiary language that predictably causes harm.

Garcia’s closing message:  “Words have power.”

Watch the full interview here:

GUEST COLUMN: Trump Leading Source of COVID-19 Misinformation, Says Cornell Alliance for Science

A version of this post appeared in CommPro.biz.

Last week Cornell University’s Alliance for Science published the first comprehensive study of coronavirus misinformation in the media, and concluded that President Trump is likely the largest driver of the such misinformation.

Lost in the News Cycle

In any other administration this would have led the news for at least a week.

But the report came five days after President Donald J. Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. It came four days after publication of a massive New York Times investigation that revealed that President Trump paid no federal income taxes for years. It came just two days after the debate debacle in which the President refused to condemn white supremacy and seemed to endorse the Proud Boys. And it came just hours before the news that the President and First Lady had tested positive for COVID-19.

I wish the President and the First Lady a speedy and complete recovery.

But it is important that this news not be lost, and that the President be held accountable for the consequences of his words, actions, and inaction.

Language, Inaction, and Consequences

I am a professor of ethics, leadership, and communication at Columbia University and New York University. This summer my book about Trump’s language and how it inspires violence was published. I finished writing Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It in February. But since then the effect of Trump’s language has been even more dangerous.

In the book, I document how charismatic leaders use language in ways that set a powerful context that determines what makes sense to their followers. Such leaders can make their followers believe absurdities, which then can make atrocities possible. If COVID-19 is a hoax, if it will magically disappear, if it affects only the elderly with heart problems, then it makes sense for people to gather in large crowds without social distancing or masks.

There’s just one problem. None of that is true. But Trump said all those things. And his followers believed him. And the President and his political allies refused to implement policies to protect their citizens.

What The President Knew, and When The President Knew It

As I write this, 210,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 and the President is being treated for it at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.

But it didn’t have to happen. Three weeks ago Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, estimated that if the nation had gone to national masking and lock-down one week earlier in March, and had maintained a constant masking and social distancing policy, 150,000 of fatalities could have been avoided.

Trump knew about the severity of the virus in February and March.

In taped discussions Trump told Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward what he knew about how dangerous COVID-19 is:

  • It is spread in the air
  • You catch it by breathing it
  • Young people can get it
  • It is far deadlier than the flu
  • It’s easily transmissible
  • If you’re the wrong person and it gets you, your life is pretty much over. It rips you apart
  • It moves rapidly and viciously.
  • It is a plague

But he was telling the nation the opposite.

“Infodemic” of COVID-19

The Report Cover

President Trump likes to label anything he doesn’t agree with Fake News. But it turns out that he’s the largest disseminator of misinformation about Coronavirus.

Cornell University’s Alliance for Science analyzed 38 million pieces of content published in English worldwide between January 1 and May 26, 2020. It identified 1.1 million news articles that “disseminated, amplified or reported on misinformation related to the pandemic.”

On October 1, 2020 the Alliance published its report. It notes,

“These findings are of significant concern because if people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may attempt harmful cures or be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.”

Its conclusion:

“One major finding is that media mentions of President Trump within the context of different misinformation topics made up 37% of the overall ‘misinformation conversation,’ much more than any other single topic.

The study concludes that Donald Trump was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic.’

In contrast only 16% of media mentions of misinformation were explicitly ‘fact-checking’ in nature, suggesting that a substantial quantity of misinformation reaches media consumers without being challenged or accompanied by factually accurate information.”

But Trump may be responsible for more than the 37% of the news stories that name him. The report says that

” a substantial proportion of other topics was also driven by the president’s comments [but did not explicitly name him], so some overlap can be expected.

Graphic from Cornell Alliance for Science Report

The most prevalent misinformation was about miracle cures. More than 295,000 stories mentioned some version of a miracle cure. (Note that the study looked only at stories that were published before the end of May, long before the president’s statements about a vaccine being ready by the end of October.)

The report notes that Trump prompted a surge of miracle cure stories when he spoke of using disinfectants internally and advocated taking hydroxychloroquine.

The second most prevalent topic, mentioned in nearly 50,000 stories, was that COVID had something to do with the “deep state.” The report notes,

“Mentions of conspiracies linked to alleged secret “new world orders” or ‘deep state’ government bodies existed throughout the time period and were referenced in passing in conversations that mentioned or listed widespread conspiracies. Indeed, President Trump joked about the US State Department being a ‘Deep State’ Department during a White House COVID press conference in March.”

The third most prevalent misinformation was about COVID-19 being a Democratic hoax, mentioned in more than 40,000 stories.

 

Human Consequences of Misinformation

The report closes with a warning: Misinformation has consequences:

“It is especially notable that while misinformation and conspiracy theories promulgated by ostensibly grassroots sources… do appear in our analysis in several of the topics, they contributed far less to the overall volume of misinformation than more powerful actors, in particular the US President.

In previous pandemics, such as the HIV/AIDS outbreak, misinformation and its effect on policy was estimated to have led to an additional 300,000 deaths in South Africa alone.

If similar or worse outcomes are to be avoided in the present COVID-19 pandemic, greater efforts will need to be made to combat the “infodemic” that is already substantially polluting the wider media discourse.”

In my book, I help engaged citizens, civic leaders, and public officials recognize dangerous language and then confront those who use it. I urge such citizens and leaders to hold those who use such language responsible for the consequences.

I wish President Trump a full and fast recovery. He and those closest to him have now been affected by their own denial of science. I hope that now he can start to model appropriate safe behavior.

But even as Trump is being treated in the hospital his campaign says it will stay the course, including an in-person rally for Vice President Mike Pence the day after the vice-presidential debate in several days. This is both irresponsible and dangerous.

I urge civic leaders, engaged citizens, and public officials, regardless of party, to stop having super-spreader events such as in-person rallies. And finally to begin modeling responsible behavior: Wear a mask, maintain social distancing. Masking and distancing are not political acts; they are a civic responsibility.

GUEST COLUMN: The Last Full Measure…

Versions of this post originally appeared on Daily Kos and CommPro.biz on May 25, 2020.

To me Memorial Day is personal.

And today I’m angry.

But I get ahead of myself.

West Point

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where for 25 years my father was a civilian professor, and where he and my mom are buried.

My Dad was very close to his students. They often came by the house to get a bit of a refuge from the stresses of cadet life: take off the uniform, smoke a cigarette, have a beer. Talk literature and music and language. And my brothers and I often played with them: throwing around a football or playing catch with a baseball. They were young men, 18, 19, 20, 21 years old. They seemed so grown up to me.

At the time, 1967, I was ten and had only a vague idea of what the cadets were. I knew they were students and were about to become soldiers. I was taken by the spectacle of the parades, with cadets in grey uniforms and high-plumed hats carrying rifles or swords and marching in tight formation.

Cadets on the Parade Ground, USMA, West Point

Cadets at the time were not permitted to leave the post, nor to have visitors from off post. But when they graduated in June there was an influx of civilians, of friends and family to watch the graduation parade, to attend the graduation ceremony at the football stadium, and then to watch their cadet get married.

During June Week, as it is called, it seemed as if there was a different wedding every hour at the Most Holy Trinity Church, colloquially known as the Catholic Chapel. My two younger brothers and I were altar boys.

As it happens, we were the only family with three altar boys. And because serving a weekday wedding required getting pulled out of school, the church found it easier to use my brothers and me for all three-altar-boy events. The church got standing permission from our parents. Then, like clockwork, a military sedan driven by a soldier would pull up to the school, the principal would pull each of us out of class, and we’d be driven the three miles to the church. We’d serve as many weddings as were scheduled, and then either be driven back or walk home.

In June Week in 1967 my parents attended many of those weddings. Some of their favorite students were getting married. And we kids had gotten to know the grooms quite well. They also typically brought their brides and both sets of parents to the house to meet my folks the day before the wedding.

The typical career path for a newly-graduated cadet was this: Quick honeymoon, then report to Fort Benning, Georgia, for infantry training with their new platoons. Then deployment to Vietnam as second lieutenants commanding platoons of about 30 men.

Tet

Battle of Hue, 1968

In late January 1968, eighty thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched a coordinated attack on more than one hundred cities and towns in South Vietnam. It started on the lunar new year, known as Tet, and this attack was dubbed the Tet Offensive. Although it turned out to be a tactical failure by the North, it cost Americans dearly. In the first week alone the U.S. lost 2,547 killed in action, making it the deadliest week of the war. That year more than 16,500 American were killed in action, making 1968 the deadliest year of the war.

Many of those killed were new second lieutenants from West Point.

Starting in mid-February and continuing throughout the year, the green military sedan would pull into the school parking lot, and my brothers and I would depart to serve at a funeral, which also requires three altar boys. As often as not, we recognized the families. We had served their weddings the prior June.

The funeral took two parts: a funeral mass, and then a formal burial at the West Point Cemetery, about a mile from the Church. There was a funeral procession, including muffled drums, bugles, and a part of the West Point Band, on the route between the church and the cemetery.

As the senior altar boy I led the procession, carrying a large crucifix as if it was a flag. Behind me my brothers walked side by side; one carrying a censer filled with smoking incense, the other a silver pitcher of holy water. The priest would later use these at the graveside, waving the censer to diffuse the smoke from the incense and sprinkling holy water on the coffin. Then the honor guard, flag bearers, the hearse with lights on, and then the long line of cars, also with their lights on.

Along the route of the procession we marched in solemn slow steps, accompanied by the rolling beat of the muffled drums, echoing out continuous four-beat rolls: rrr-rrr-rrts (pause), rrr-rrr-rrts (pause)… a full mile to the cemetery.

At the cemetery, after the priest had performed his rites, the military took over. Each funeral was the same. First, a column of seven soldiers fired a three-volley 21-gun salute. Then a bugler some 100 feet away played Taps. Then the honor guard, standing around the coffin, ceremonially lifted the American flag, folded it in half lengthwise, and then diagonally twelve times, making a tight triangle with the blue field and white stars facing up.

L to R, My brother Chuck, not yet an altar boy, Tom, and me.

A member of the honor guard, in dress blue uniform, then walked to the widow or parent, knelt, bowed his head, and holding the flag between open white-gloved hands softly said, “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service. God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America.”

For me the Vietnam War was personal. I experienced the war not only on TV, not only, in the post-Tet coverage, when President Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party to run for president again. I experienced the war through the tears of widows holding newborn babies, and the widows and Gold-Star parents of my Dad’s students, clutching blue triangles with white stars, holding back tears at the cemetery.

Today

Vietnam news coverage featured what was known as the Five-O’clock Follies; the nightly news briefing in Saigon where military leaders spewed nonsense about how we were winning the war. One Associated Press reporter at the time called it “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”

Today we have the same, where the President spews absurdities about how he’s winning the war on COVID-19. He rambles about injecting disinfectants and promotes a dangerous and unapproved drug. He calls for houses of worship to open even as his public health experts argue that it’s still dangerous for large groups to gather.

This weekend we are approaching the same number of American fatalities as we experienced in the Vietnam and Korean wars combined. But we have suffered these losses in two months rather than in 25 years. The New York Times Sunday devoted its entire front page to the names and information of one thousand of them. That’s merely one percent of the fatalities so far. It just happens to fall on Memorial Day Weekend.

More relevant, we have a president who dishonors those who wear the uniform.

He viciously attacks Gold-Star families.

Trump called for a “total and complete ban” of Muslims entering the United States. Five thousand Muslims serve in uniform; we are fighting next to Muslim allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.

He calls immigrants “animals” and an invasion. Today 65,000 immigrants serve in the U.S. military, putting themselves on the line for their adoptive country. That’s about five percent of all who wear the uniform. More than 20,000 of them are not U.S. citizens.

Some never will be. Military Times reported in 2018 on a U.S. Government Accountability Office report:

“Over the past couple of years, stories of non-citizen veterans being deported have made major headlines. As it turns out, there is a process in place that provides extra consideration for those immigration cases, but federal officials haven’t been following it.”  A review of the GAO report and others suggest members of the military, before and after discharge, face increasing risk of deportation, naturalization denials and slowdowns, and/or expulsion from the military due to their immigration status under the Trump administration.

Duty, Honor, Country

U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Cody W. Torkelson

So on this memorial day, my thoughts are with the families of those whose weddings and funerals my brothers and I participated in. And with all Gold-Star families.

And with one family in particular: Khizr and Ghazala Khan, immigrants from Pakistan, whose son gave the last full measure of his devotion. Captain Humayun Khan, who was Muslim and an immigrant, served in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004. He saw a suspicious car approaching a guard post. He put himself between his troops and two suicide bombers. He and the bombers were killed in the explosion. His troops were saved. He was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. True American hero.

GUEST COLUMN: Trump’s Liberate Tweet Puts Lives At Risk

This post was originally published in the Daily Kos, a progressive political opinion site. This guest column was adapted from material in my forthcoming book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront it.

Almost exactly a month ago, I raised the alarm about the increase in incivility against Asians and Asian Americans, provoked in part by President Trump’s use of “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” to describe COVID-19. The FBI has since warned that a wave of hate crimes against people perceived to be Asian or Asian-American is under way.

Now, this incivility has turned towards our healthcare workers and government officials.

It began nearly two weeks ago, as people began protesting outside of government buildings demanding that states reopen. Resentment has been building about stay-at-home orders since early March, encouraged by conservative media and some government officials – including President Trump.

On April 16, Trump announced new guidelines from his administration on how states should lift stay-in-place orders to restart the economy, titled “Opening Up America Again.”

“Based on the latest data, our team of experts now agrees that we can begin the next front in our war, which we’re calling, “Opening Up America Again.” And that’s what we’re doing: We’re opening up our country.  And we have to do that.  America wants to be open, and Americans want to be open. As I have said for some time now, a national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution.  To preserve the health of our citizens, we must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy.”

The guidelines outline a phased process that governors would lead based on their specific circumstances. This came days after Trump claimed he had “ultimate authority” to reopen states, as governors across the east and west coasts vowed to not reopen their states until the pandemic subsides.

 

Incendiary Tweets

The next day, Trump flipped his script. Several small protests had popped up across the country against the stay-at-home orders. That morning, Fox News aired a segment about a group called “Liberate Minnesota,” which planned to protest the state’s stay-at-home order outside of the governor’s house.

Minutes later, Trump tweeted,

“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” followed by “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINA, and save your great 2nd amendment. It is under siege!”

This apparent endorsement of the protests, in direct violation of public health guidelines issued by Trump’s own administration, was seen by some as a signal. Far-right extremists believed Trump’s tweets were a call for armed conflict, an event referred to as “the boogaloo.” The term “Boogaloo,” shorthand for “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo,” had been documented in February of this year as a new and growing movement of far-right extremists calling for a new Civil War. Hours after the president’s “Liberate” tweets, more than 1,000 tweets were posted using the term “Boogaloo.”

And, in fact, the 2nd Amendment was not under attack by any governmental or political leader. But protesters took the cue and began showing up in public heavily armed, including with semi-automatic assault weapons.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee immediately recognized the threat posed by Trump’s tweets:

“The president’s statements this morning encourage illegal and dangerous acts. He is putting millions of people in danger of contracting COVID-19. His unhinged rantings and calls for people to “liberate” states could also lead to violence. We’ve seen it before.”

Inslee continued:

“The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies even while his own administration says the virus is real and is deadly, and that we have a long way to go before restrictions can be lifted.”

Over the next several days, anti-lockdown protests spread across the country, with large crowds gathering outside of government buildings and governors’ homes, many without wearing masks and bearing homemade signs such as “COVID-19 is a lie” and “Social distancing = communism.” Many protestors wore MAGA hats. Some protestors carried weapons, flew Nazi and confederate flags, and shouted phrases typically heard during Trump rallies.

 

Attacking Healthcare Heroes

And then the vitriol turned to healthcare workers. As the anti-lockdown protests continued, healthcare workers began counter-protesting on their days off across the country, appearing in scrubs and masks in defiance of those claiming the virus isn’t real. Anti-lockdown protestors began harassing these healthcare workers, shouting insults like “shame”, “traitors”, and “fake nurses.”

Lauren Leander, an ICU nurse in Arizona, described her interactions with protestors as she and her colleagues stood silently in scrubs and masks at an anti-quarantine protest in Phoenix:

“It was heated, people were very fired up about what they had to say… A lot of the top comments we got were about us being fake nurses, there was a huge majority of them that still believe this virus is fake, that it’s a hoax and not real at all. They were convinced that we’re fake nurses and that’s why we weren’t talking.”

Even politicians have propagated this language, questioning the legitimacy of the health workers. Who were counter-protesting. Former Arizona state senator, Dr. Kelli Ward, tweeted on April 21,

“EVEN IF these “spontaneously” appearing ppl at protests against govt overreach (sporting the same outfits, postures, & facial expressions) ARE involved in healthcare – when they appeared at rallies, they were actors playing parts. #Propaganda #FakeOutrage”.

Meanwhile, Trump continued passively supporting the protests.

 

Deflecting Responsibility

In Words on Fire I document a pattern Trump uses when asked to denounce people who commit or threaten violence in the wake of  Trump’s rhetoric. Trump’s response typically includes some or all the four elements below.

Deflect. He does this in several ways. He ignores the call to denounce. He changes the subject. He professes ignorance about the event. He characterizes the event differently. Sometimes he expresses sympathy for victims while not addressing the event that caused them to be become victims.

Diminish. If pressed he diminishes the significance of the event or attempts to create equivalence between the event and more benign topics.

Denounce. After an interval, sometimes of hours, but often of days, Trump issues a written denunciation or reads a statement denouncing the event or person, often in a tone of rote recitation.

Revert. Not long after the denunciation, Trump reverts to his earlier language and behavior, as if his denunciation never happened. This is a constant; it happens after every denunciation.

On April 20, President Trump was asked specifically about whether he was worried that his words may incite violence. It led to this exchange:

Q    You know, these — you referred to these protests earlier.  You know, some of them are getting pretty intense and were actually getting some death threats to some governors who are reluctant to reopen.

He went to Step 1, Deflect:

THE PRESIDENT:  You are, in the media?

Q    No, the governors are getting death threats.  You know, governors of Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia.  They’re getting increased level of death threats.  And are you concerned that your talk about liberation and the Second Amendment and all this stuff —

THE PRESIDENT:  No.  No, no.

Q    — are you inciting violence among a few people who are (inaudible)?

THE PRESIDENT:  I’ve seen the people.  I’ve seen interviews of the people.  These are great people.  Look, they want to get — they call it “cabin fever.”  You’ve heard the term.  They’ve got cabin fever.  They want to get back.  They want their life back.  Their life was taken away from them…

Q    Are worried about violence though?  I mean, some of them (inaudible) threats at them.

He then went to Step 2: Diminish:

THE PRESIDENT:  I am not.  No, I’m not.  I think these people are — I’ve never seen so many American flags.  I mean, I’m seeing the same thing that you’re seeing.  I don’t see it any differently.

Q    There are Nazi flags out there too.

THE PRESIDENT:  They are who?

Q    Nazis flags.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, that I totally would say, “No way.”  But I’ve seen — I didn’t see that.  I see all — of course, I’m sure the news plays that up.  I’ve seen American flags all over the place.  I have never seen so many American flags at a rally as I have at these rallies.  These people love our country.  They want to get back to work.

He has yet to denounce the protestors, despite the fact that the majority of Americans are more concerned about states reopening too quickly than restarting the economy. Why is that?

 

Toxic Spokesman

Trump has played to this base before, since the very beginning of his first presidential campaign. He has frequently used language recognized by white supremacists and white nationalists.

And although Trump may not directly share their views, we know he is not averse to working with people who share the ideology of the protestors.

And he surrounds himself with people who are similarly-disposed.

On April 23, reports came out the Trump’s newly appointed Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Caputo, had deleted more than a thousand tweets, including tweets from March that included racists and derogatory comments about Chinese people, the very rhetoric that caused the wave of hate crimes the FBI warned about.

Caputo’s tweets also claimed that Democrats were rooting for the virus to kill thousands of people, and conspiracy theories about how the virus was a hoax to hurt Trump.

This man will now be the chief spokesman for America’s healthcare infrastructure.

 

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We’ve seen the effects of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric before. We know the predictable consequences of that rhetoric. If Trump continues to use language that encourages people to violence, eventually someone will answer his call.

PRESS RELEASE: New Book Details the Dangerous Effect of Trump’s Language

WORDS ON FIRE:    

The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It

 

Author and leadership communication professor Helio Fred Garcia documents President Donald Trump’s increasingly dangerous rhetoric, from his campaign through the first 2 ½ years in office, and how some lone wolves were motivated by that rhetoric to commit violence, in his new book, WORDS ON FIRE: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It. Published by Radius Book Group, Words on Fire is scheduled for release on June 30, 2020.

WORDS ON FIRE is about the power of communication to do great harm, and how civic leaders and engaged citizens can hold leaders accountable to prevent such harm. Garcia focuses on the language President Trump uses that conditions an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against a targeted group, rival, or critic. The book includes a history of such rhetoric and identifies a playbook of twelve forms of communication that typically precede acts of mass violence up to and including genocide. The Nazis used all twelve; the Rwandan Hutu used ten. Trump uses all twelve. Garcia also introduces a new, more accessible name for rhetoric that provokes violence: lone-wolf whistle violence, on the model of “dog whistle” politics, where politicians use coded language that conveys one meaning, usually benign, to most people, but a different meaning to members of a certain group or followers of a certain ideology.

“In my teaching and research, I study patterns: patterns that help leaders enhance competitive advantage, build trust and loyalty, and change the world for the better. I also note patterns that predictably, even if unintentionally, lead to hurt, to harm, and to violence,” said Garcia. “In reflecting on the President’s language, I noticed a pattern: He was using the very same rhetorical techniques that had preceded previous mass murders, including genocides. I worried that, left unchecked, he would continue, with increasingly dire consequences.”

WORDS ON FIRE describes the changes in the nation’s political culture and media that led to Trump’s nomination and presidency. It profiles leaders who dialed back their rhetoric when it was shown to put people’s lives at risk. The book closes with a call to action: We can learn the lessons of today to prepare for tomorrow, to help civic leaders, engaged citizens, journalists, and public officials recognize the phenomenon and take steps to hold other leaders accountable in the future when they use such language.

 

Advance Praise for Words on Fire

“Language is power, and powerful. It can uplift, or harm. Helio Fred Garcia is an astute student of language and communication. This book offers historic examples, keen insights and valuable advice on recognizing patterns of language that can harm or lead to violence.”

—  Former Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security spokesman, Col. David Lapan, USMC (Ret)

Words on Fire serves as a guiding light during this dark moment in our history. Every American should read this timely, imperative book if we are to save our democracy.”

—  Gold Star Parent and Immigrant American Khizr Khan

“Words On Fire should be mandatory reading and a guide book for every journalist, business school, religious leader, and elected official. Important institutions in our society and culture have the affirmative responsibility to stand up and speak out against the users and use of dangerous language.”

—  James E. Lukaszewski, America’s Crisis Guru®

“This is a highly readable guide to how we can call out and combat Trump’s toxic language and malignant agenda, and push back against the corrosive forces that enable Trumpism and put our country in peril.”

—  Evan Wolfson, Founder, Freedom to Marry

“Garcia, a proven scholar on communication, identifies rhetoric that breeds violence, affirms autocracy, and prompts terrorism as well as critical responses to those developments that serve as antidotes to trouble and strategies for building a more equitable, united world.”

— Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President Emeritus, Interfaith Alliance

 

About the Author

For nearly 40 years Helio Fred Garcia has helped leaders build trust, inspire loyalty, and lead effectively. Garcia is a coach, counselor, teacher, writer, and speaker whose clients include some of the largest and best-known companies and organizations in the world including. He has worked and taught in dozens of countries on six continents.

Since 1988 Garcia has been an adjunct professor of management at the New York University Stern School of Business executive MBA program, where he teaches crisis management and was named Executive MBA Great Professor in 2016. He is an adjunct associate professor of management and communication at NYU School of professional studies where he teaches communication strategy, communication ethics and law, and crisis communication.

Garcia is also an adjunct associate professor of professional development and leadership at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where he teaches ethics, crisis, and leadership.

He is a senior fellow at the Institute of Corporate Communication at Communication University of China. He is a contract lecturer at the Defense Information School and at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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