When does political expression cross a line?

Photographer: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

How Public Bigotry Creeps Into Private Lives

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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What's in a name? It's a measure of Donald Trump's insidious reach, and of the potency of the political virus he carries, that I was thinking about this lately. 

I'm hardly an obvious target of Trump's demagogy and contempt. I'm not a Mexican "rapist" who hopped a fence. I'm not a female "pig" whose dimensions don't conform to the demands of a pageant sash. I'm not a Muslim, accused by Trump of knowing, and keeping silent about, the murderous plans of home-grown terrorists. I have no physical disability capable of triggering Trump's unerring instinct for gratuitous cruelty.

I'm a college-educated, white, heterosexual American male born in the latter half of the 20th century -- about the most privileged species on earth. Yet it occurred to me recently that the social toxins released by Trump's presidential candidacy can seep beneath even the most formidable social defense.

When my wife gave birth to our second child, we had a name ready for the baby. But the little girl who emerged defied us. She looked too delicate for the tomboyish name we had prepared for her. We opted for a different one.

There was no political or moral content to the decision. We just chose a different name, one that seemed better suited to the tiny being before us. It was a Muslim name, as it happens, not that we thought much about it. (My wife, who is Indian-American, has a Muslim name, as well.) 

Names are important. They tie families together across time and space. Distinguish individuals. Even, perhaps, point some of us toward professions.

Because of Trump, the simple, joyful act of naming our daughter might be very different if she were born today. Would I want her to have a Muslim name at a time when the Republican presidential nominee is viciously attacking Muslims? If we gave her the name anyway, would an otherwise personal act of love be steeped in moral and political connotations? Would a simple name inevitably become a statement?

The point is not that any member of my family -- least of all me -- is a particular victim of Trump's ugliness. It's that bigotry has second-level effects, indeed third-level and fourth-level and so on, that are impossible to predict, measure or contain. Demagogy seeps into social crevices and institutional arrangements in ways both conscious and unconscious.

Vaclav Havel wrote: "Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance."

Something like the reverse is also true. A vicious strain of politics can ripple through apolitical corners of society, invading sanctuaries, altering morality, subtly poisoning relations and peoples. The histories of authoritarian and totalitarian politics, of the sort that for decades dominated Havel's Czech homeland, are full of such encroachments.     

Trump's greatest reach, of course, is inside the minds of his own supporters. In interviews over the past year, many have pronounced variations on the theme that Trump "says what everyone is thinking." They view Trump as their public fist -- waging rude, crude and brutal attacks on enemies, justifying hatreds, avenging hurt dignity.

They relish the orgy of abuse at Trump events, and some even join in, heaping contempt on the chosen targets before returning to their communities, saturated in grievance, titillated by verbal violence (and occasionally physical), changed in ways that Trump does not say, and that they themselves may not begin to grasp. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net