OPINION: Studying genocide during the Trump administration

The+Trump+administration+has+altered+perceptions+of+the+media+since+the+President%E2%80%99s+campaign+in+2016%2C+popularizing+the+term+%E2%80%9Cfake+news%E2%80%9D+to+discredit+reporting+that+did+not+aid+his+campaign.

Image: Serena Golden

The Trump administration has altered perceptions of the media since the President’s campaign in 2016, popularizing the term “fake news” to discredit reporting that did not aid his campaign.

This is an opinion article. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster.

This semester, I’ve been reading about genocide. In Comparative Genocide with David Gushee, we study how genocide occurs and how the international community responds to it. Perhaps most importantly, we study how political leaders become perpetrators of crimes against humanity. 

It is difficult to take a class like Comparative Genocide without drawing comparisons to our current reality as Americans. The same themes seem to arise in each genocide we study: authoritarianism, disinformation and profound social divisions. 

Since August, I have viewed everything I read in the news through the critical lens of someone thinking extensively about atrocity. When an ICE detention center nurse alleged that facilities in Georgia were performing unnecessary hysterectomies, I thought about the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The U.N. definition of genocide includes imposing measures intended to prevent births with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. 

Performing alleged coerced hysterectomies on detained immigrants may not be enough to constitute a genocide conviction, but the definition is clear. 

Before Nazi Germany began murdering Jews, Roma “Gypsies” and disabled citizens in 1941, the exterminations were preceded by forced sterilizations. Nazi Germany aimed to create a “new” Germany by strategically sterilizing those they deemed “genetically unfit,” according to Peter Fritzsche, author of “Life and Death in the Third Reich.”

Media propaganda played a critical role in multiple genocides. During the 1990s, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević used Serbia’s TV stations to run constant propaganda, turning the Serbs against their Bosnian Muslim neighbors with lies about the threat to Serbia. Former Washington Post correspondent Peter Maass documents Serb propaganda in his book “Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War.” 

During the same period in Rwanda, President Juvénal Habyarimana, his wife Agathe and their “akazu” network employed a Hutu extremist to create a newspaper spreading false stories about Tutsi people. The publication, called Kangura, deliberately worsened ethnic tensions between Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis before the genocide began. 

The Trump administration has altered perceptions of the media since the President’s campaign in 2016, popularizing the term “fake news” to discredit reporting that did not aid his campaign. At the same time, the administration employed Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a publication self-described as “the platform for the alt-right.” When I read about TV stations in Serbia and the Kangura newspaper in Rwanda, Steve Bannon’s role as White House chief strategist in 2017 was the first thing that came to mind. According to the Washington Post, it took President Trump 1,267 days to make 20,000 false or misleading claims, an average of 23 claims a day over 14 months.

The deepening divisions between the American left and right are particularly alarming in the face of the Nov. 3 election. Relations between ideological groups in the U.S. are starting to resemble something like the passionate hatred between groups we study in class. Even if the U.S. never comes close to a genocide, is it alarming enough to have common traits with countries that have?