How language is bringing down Donald Trump

Words can be weapons. In the wrong hands (or mouths), they can sting, burn, burrow, blind, pierce hearts and corrupt souls.

Donald Trump is in trouble in the polls today for turning words into weapons and for vernacular political suicide. If you offend enough people outside your tent, you may be the only one left in it. 

The Tweeter-in-Chief has used words to tear at the fabric of America. The history of President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE’s vicious vocabulary is worth repeating as he prepares to possibly speak to the nation about race and unity. Presidential speeches go into the history books, and the words get repeated and quoted — if they are worth remembering. In Trump’s case, we will spend years trying to forget his words and heal the wounds.

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First, he attacked people of Hispanic heritage. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” 

In 2016 Trump began demeaning U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel for supposedly being biased against him because of his Mexican heritage. Judge Curiel, who was born and raised in Indiana, was presiding over cases involving Trump University. Trump referred to Curiel as “a very hostile judge,” a “judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine.” 

In an interview with CNN in June, Trump doubled down on his criticism of Curiel, "He’s a Mexican,” Trump said. “We’re building a wall between here and Mexico." 

Muslims were next up. During the presidential campaign, Trump insulted the family of Captain Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan, a U.S. Army officer killed by a suicide bomber in the Iraq War.

When his father, Khizr Khan, spoke up at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, with his wife by his side, Trump insulted them by suggesting that Mrs. Khan was made to stand in silence. “If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” he said. “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say.”

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As president, Trump took the insults to a policy level to impose bans on immigrants from majority-Muslim countries.

Trump has also routinely attacked people of color. He called April Ryan, a black reporter with American Urban Radio Networks in Baltimore, a “loser.” He then labeled the entire city of Baltimore “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

At a rally in North Carolina, he told Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocratic strategist Andrew Feldman says Biden is moving left Hispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president Nadler wins Democratic primary MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid Black lives and the CBC: What happens to a dream deferred? MORE (D-Minn), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressives zero in on another House chairman in primary Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE (D-Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE (D-Mich.) to “go back” to help fix the totally “broken and crime-infested places” from which they came. But three of them had been born in the U.S. 

Later he stereotyped black voters, telling them, “What do you have to lose…you’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs…” 

After the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, Trump didn’t just say there are “very good people on both sides.” That was his second statement; his first was, “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence from many sides…” 

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When Trump called several poor countries “shit-hole nations,” he was chastising countries made up of people of color. 

When he said that after seeing America, Nigerians would “never go back to their huts,” he was ignorantly stereotyping the nation as being stuck in a previous century. 

Not content to alienate just blacks and Hispanics, the president went after Jews in real estate. “A lot of you are in the real estate business, because I know you very well,” he said. “You’re brutal killers. Not nice people at all, but you have to vote for me, you have no choice.”

Words not only sting — they incite. FBI data show that since Trump’s election, there has been an anomalous spike in hate crime violence concentrated in counties where Trump won by large margins. Data collected by the Anti-Defamation League show that counties that hosted a Trump campaign rally in 2016 saw reported hate crimes double compared to similar counties that did not host rallies.

Which bring us back to the peaceful protests spreading throughout America and the world in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The reason the protests keep growing is not just because police brutality has disproportionately targeted blacks in America. It has. The protests keep growing because this president has targeted so many Americans — tacitly encouraging law enforcement to use unnecessary force. And he has emboldened extremists and voices of hatred by himself using words of hatred. Many Americans are saying “enough!” 

There used to be many words to describe America: Generous, beckoning, welcoming, inspiring, uplifting. We exported our words with the corresponding values and norms we ascribed to them. Without a common language, we are unmoored, rootless, vulnerable.

Words matter and have consequences. And as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has said, “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

Tara D. Sonenshine served as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Obama administration.