Does President Donald Trump's rhetoric mobilize racist sentiments?
There hasn't been much research to directly answer this question but one study found a correlation between Trump support and hate crimes.
In a January 2019 study posted to SSRN, professors Griffin Sims Edwards (University of Alabama at Birmingham) and Stephen Rushin (Loyola University Chicago School of Law), who specialize in using statistics to study crime, investigated hate crimes during Trump's campaign and election.
Using FBI crime statistics, Edwards and Rushin examined the number of reported hate crimes since 1992. Overall, the good news is that, contrary to popular perceptions, the general crime rate has gone down over the last 10 years, and that includes hate crimes.
They also found that hate crimes increase in the summer, about April through September. Edwards and Rushin wanted to know, however, if there was a spike in hate crimes tied to Trump, so they controlled for these variations. With these controls and others, they found the biggest spike in hate crimes, by far, occurred after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But the second biggest spike occurred in the quarter that started before and ended after Trump's election in November 2016 (but not when his campaign started in 2015), and there was no similar spike during other presidential elections. More specifically, they estimated that Trump's election might have contributed to an additional 2,048 hate crimes since his election.
Edwards and Rushin also found "a larger and more statistically significant uptick in the number of reported hate crimes from the end of 2016 through 2017" in the counties that showed strong support for Trump.
A number of recent events have made this question more salient.
A manifesto suspected to be from the alleged perpetrator of the Aug. 3 mass shooting targeting Latinos in El Paso, Texas, contained language similar to Trump's rhetoric.
He wrote, for instance, that "the ever increasing Hispanic population" will put Democrats in a dominant position of political power. The shooting, he said, would provide an incentive for Hispanics to "return to their home countries" which would "remove the threat of the Hispanic voting bloc." The shooter repeatedly used the word "invasion" in place of immigration and called immigrants "invaders," language Trump has also used often.
At the same time, other parts of the manifesto sounded unlike Trump. He complained about the power of corporations and environmental degradation. Plus, he anticipated that Trump would be blamed, writing, "I know that the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric."
After the shooting, several press articles reported that Trump joked about shooting immigrants at a May rally in the Florida panhandle, which, outside of the state capital of Tallahassee, is the most conservative part of the state.
“How do you stop these people? You can’t,” Trump said, speaking of immigrants.
Someone from the crowd then yelled, "Shoot them."
As the audience cheered, Trump said with a smirk, "Only in the panhandle can you get away with that statement."
The issue of Trump using language that racists would find inspirational was also raised in mid-July when he tweeted that four non-white congresswomen should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."
After that, during a rally in North Carolina, Trump mentioned one of those women, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and the crowd chanted, "send her back!"
And then in late July, Trump criticized parts of Democrat Congressman Elijah Cummings' majority black district in Baltimore, Maryland, as a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested" place where "no human being would want to live."
The issue also came up in August 2017 after the white supremacist march and subsequent riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, when many accused Trump of being reluctant to criticize the racists after he noted that there was violence on "both sides."
At a July Senate hearing, FBI Director Chris Wray was asked whether "racist and divisive comments" from "national leaders" could inspire violent acts. He answered, "I think extremist rhetoric by anybody can have the effect — any public figure could have the effect of inspiring people. But remember that the people who commit hate fueled violence are not logical, rational people."
In an Aug. 1 column for The Washington Post, Michael Gerson, an evangelical who worked in the George W. Bush administration, wrote that Trump "makes racist comments, appeals to racist sentiments and inflames racist passions. The rationalization that he is not, deep down in his heart, really a racist is meaningless. Trump’s continued offenses mean that a large portion of his political base is energized by racist tropes and the language of white grievance."
Others have argued that Trump's rhetoric isn't racist, but only presented that way by a biased media.
Writing about Trump's tweets telling certain congresswomen of color to "go back ... from which they came," conservative Andrew McCarthy said that the comments were "abjectly stupid," insensitive, "juvenile," and "indefensible jackassery," but not racist. Rather, the perception comes from a "media-Democrat complex" that sees racism where it doesn't exist.
For an in-depth investigative report, ABC News searched state and federal court documents for violent crimes, threats of violence or allegations of assault with direct ties to Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
For Bush and Obama, ABC found no cases. For Trump, there were 36.
While all of them show connections between Trump's rhetoric and acts of violence, they were not all Trump supporters. Seven of the 36 were in protest of Trump, such as attacks on people wearing Trump's signature "Make America Great Again" red baseball cap.
Additionally, not all of them showed signs of racial animus. For instance, Cesar Sayoc, a Florida man of Filipino and Italian descent living in a van covered with pro-Trump stickers, was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending 15 fake bombs to prominent Trump critics of various races and ethnicities in late October 2018.
But some of the cases did indicate racism was a motive. Here are some examples:
In August 2015, two brothers beat a homeless Mexican-American citizen with a metal pole in Boston. One of the brothers told the police, "Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported."
In November 2016, the month of the election, a Hispanic man was attacked from behind by a 23-year-old man in Gainesville, Florida. When the Hispanic man asked the attacker why he did that, he replied, "This is for Donald Trump," then struck the Hispanic man several more times. Surveillance video corroborated the story.
That same month, a white Michigan man attacked an African cab driver while yelling racial slurs and "Trump."
In some of the court proceedings in these cases, defense attorneys pointed to Trump's rhetoric to defend their clients' actions or appeal for reduced sentences.
In one case, a Los Angeles man was arrested in September 2016 for posting threatening messages on a mosque's Facebook page. His attorney argued the messages were protected under the First Amendment because he used "similar language" and expressed "similar views" as Trump.
After three men in Kansas were charged for plotting to bomb a Somali apartment complex in October 2016, their attorney asked for a lighter sentence because the act was inspired by Trump, "the voice of a lost and ignored white, working-class set of voters."
And during Sayoc's sentencing hearing, his attorney appealed for a reduced sentence because, "the president's rhetoric contributed to Mr. Sayoc's behavior."
While Edward and Rushin found an association between Trump support and hate crimes, whether Trump's rhetoric causes hate crimes is more difficult to establish and will require more research.
"Given the preliminary nature of the data, we cannot make any formal, statistical claim of causation. Nevertheless, we feel that the reported correlations and supplementary analysis strongly suggest a Trump Effect in inciting hate crimes," they wrote.