Racist Strawman Rhetoric on the White House Website

On Inauguration Day, the transition from President Barack Obama to President Donald J. Trump felt especially swift given how fast issues like Climate Change and LGBTQ rights disappeared from the official White House website. People visiting the newly branded website soon discovered “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community” listed as one of the priority issues for the incoming administration.

The webpage outlines the Trump Administration’s stance on law enforcement. Their stance uses conventional rhetorical strategies for delegitimizing racial justice movements and activists. Consider the last two sentences of the opening paragraph: “The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.” These two sentences have an important location in the writing, setting the agenda and tone for what’s to come. The arrangement makes it obvious that this priority issue for the administration is a reactionary response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and its advocacy against institutional racism and police brutality.

The Trump Administration’s argument against BLM for the issue relies heavily on strawman rhetoric—a distraction technique that misrepresents an opposing idea or position to discredit it with a higher degree of potential success than possible if the opposing idea or position were represented accurately. According to this administration, criticisms of police brutality are “anti-police” instead of anti-police brutality. It is BLM’s critiques of police brutality that they consider “wrong” and not police brutality itself. Nowhere does it even mention police responsibility and accountability although these issues are at the forefront of the law enforcement and civil rights debate. This move constitutes strawman rhetoric because the administration attempts to discredit BLM through its misrepresentation of the group as “anti-police” rather than accurately addressing BLM’s position against police brutality. This rhetoric is especially deceiving when credible evidence exists that documents police brutality as a significant problem needing to be addressed.

In fact, the United States Department of Justice recently published a report on its investigation into the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Similar to their investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, they “identified serious concerns about the prevalence of racially discriminatory conduct by some CPD officers and the degree to which that conduct is tolerated and in some respects caused by deficiencies in CPD’s systems of training, supervision and accountability.”

The Trump Administration does say that “more effective policing” is necessary, raising the question of whether or not “effective policing” means reforms to police training, supervision, and accountability advocated in the Justice Department’s report. But the next sentence claims, “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.” This claim is another example of strawman rhetoric due to its attempt to discredit a group that advocates for peaceful protests, not destruction or violence. The statement’s strawman rhetoric shows that the administration’s professed concern for “the safety of every American” doesn’t take people of color into consideration. It demonstrates that, as Toni Morrison wrote, “In this country American means white.”

And while there are several statements that trouble me in this issue’s description, I can’t stop thinking about the forcefulness of the particular statement, “The Trump Administration will end it.” It’s threatening. It’s an authoritarian response to a peaceful racial justice movement. It’s a response that indicates “effective policing” here means more aggressive policing from an already militarized police force.

And what if the BLM movement did take on a more radical approach? Would that make its critiques against institutional racism and police brutality any less valid? Would that change the desperate need to confront these issues and dismantle these systems? It wouldn’t. Using the tactics of the oppressed as a reason to continue their oppression neglects consideration of the already violent conditions that those tactics respond to.

BLM protestors march in the streets to demand at least some justice from an unjust system. Labeling these peaceful protestors as “rioters, looters, and violent disrupters” is a manipulative rhetorical strategy that takes up discourse with negative connotations “to position subjects and to allow them to inhabit (only) particular social roles.” Associating BLM protests with riots, the Trump Administration implies to its audiences that protestors using their constitutional rights to demand racial justice aren’t “on the streets for a greater cause or a greater advancement… It reproduces the racist claims about black subjects: that they are violent, ignorant, selfish, and depoliticized.”

Strawman arguments work in the favor of the status quo. It’s much easier for dominant social groups to believe that protestors who call attention to injustices are “outside agitators” creating social friction. It’s much harder for them, however, to accept ideas or positions that challenge their understanding of reality and themselves in that reality. And the Trump administration attempts to use this injustice to its advantage when describing its stance on law enforcement.

Mission of the Racial Justice Desk

This desk recognizes that racial justice efforts used under President Obama are likely to evolve—and even radicalize—under President Trump. We will work to establish Citizen Critics as a space for timely and insightful commentary on the discourses and rhetorics concerning racial justice initiatives, policies, movements, and practices. We would also like to be a resource for people to eventually turn to from time to time for data. For instance, the activist collective called the DC Welcoming Committee organized protest initiatives during President Trump’s Inauguration, using the hashtag #DisruptJ20. And as a welcoming gift, we would like to offer readers this TAGS archive of 66,986 unique #DisruptJ20 tweets to reference for potential browsing, information, and/or research opportunities.

Further Reading:

Medina, José. (2013). The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. New York: Oxford University Press.