Dear President-elect Trump:
I am a professor at the University of Texas, one of America’s major research institutions. My field of study is rhetoric, a discipline dating back to ancient Greece that studies persuasion. In particular I am interested in the impact of one’s language on audiences, regardless of the intent of their discourse.
Let me be upfront: I did not vote for you and do not support many of things you said during the campaign. Nevertheless, I accept the legitimacy of your election and hold in high respect the office of the presidency you soon will occupy.
Please know that I — and many others in academe — are trying to be open-minded and avoid prejudging what you may do following inauguration. However, over the course of the campaign we have witnessed a spike in acts of hatred and bigotry — including those aimed at university faculty — which at least in part are attributed to your rhetoric. Moreover, the country is now watching in shock and horror the video of a speech given by Richard Spencer, leader of a white supremacist and anti-Semitic group, who is celebrating your victory and using the legitimacy of your election to advance and validate the shameful cause of his group.
Your deafening silence in response is profound and saddens me deeply. Simply responding to a question from the press will not suffice. As the Anti-Defamation League reminds us, our leaders must respond to racism and hatred loudly and persistently.
As you wisely said moments after declaring victory, you plan to be the president of all Americans. Wonderful! So please do just that by giving a major address decisively condemning all acts of hatred and racism, regardless of whether you are the cause of these acts. After all, groups like those that Spencer leads explicitly invoke your name, rallying behind your election to affirm their despicable beliefs.
It is incumbent upon you immediately to speak directly to the American public, once and for all denouncing this venomous un-American discourse and making clear that hate will not be tolerated during the Trump presidency!
Many have accused you and your appointees of being racist and anti-Semitic. I am not leveling that charge. Frankly, I worry that we spend far too much time arguing about whether the labels racist and anti-Semitic accurately describe you and those around you. Those debates often degenerate into unproductive and inflammatory name-calling, obscuring the more important and troubling issue, namely, how one’s rhetoric encourages, legitimizes and normalizes hateful behaviors and tendencies.
The key is accountability: I teach my students that regardless of intent everyone should be responsible and accountable for the effects produced by their discourse. History teaches us that the effects of one’s words are more dangerous than what may be in their heart. Therefore, it’s time for you and others to acknowledge this reality by forcefully declaring racist behavior deplorable and unacceptable.
If you have time to critique what the cast of “Hamilton” said to Vice President-elect Pence, complain about Saturday Night Live’s parody of you, rail against the media’s coverage of your campaign, and challenge the recount of the popular vote, then surely you have time to do the right thing by condemning all horrific acts of hatred that accelerated in the wake of your campaign rhetoric.
We are counting on you, Mr. Trump, to reaffirm American values and core democratic principles. This is a teachable moment. It is your chance to be the president of all Americans, uniting the country behind ideas everyone shares —whether we are Democrats or Republicans. My students, the nation and entire world are watching.
Richard Cherwitz is an Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor at the University of Texas Moody College of Communication. He is also founder and director of Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium.