Trump's racist youth wing garnered widespread attention over the weekend. Can he continue to brush it off?
The breathtaking assortment and pace of racist outrages nowadays sometimes seems to blot out the future. But a video of Kentucky high school students mocking a Native American elder reminds us of how dangerous that future could be.
Outfitted in white or red Make America Great Again hats, dozens of young people from a high school in Park Hills, Kentucky, were caught on camera on Friday heckling an elder of the Omaha tribe, Nathan Phillips, as he sang a ceremonial song near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Phillips, 62, was there as part of the annual Indigenous People’s March.
This heckling of Phillips, a veteran of the Vietnam War, occurred almost two years, to the day, after US President Donald Trump took office on January 20, 2017, during which he promised to make America great again.
According to The Washington Post, some of the teens from Covington Catholic School, on Kentucky side of the Ohio River, separating the two states just outside Cincinnati, Ohio, could face disciplinary action from their school, which condemned their behaviour. The consequences could include expulsion from the all boys private institution, where tuition costs as much as $9,000 a year. Almost all of the students were reported to be white.
A video of the incident generated outrage on social media, and condemnation from Native American groups and members of congress. At least one commentator, Wall Street Journal reporter Byron Tau, lamented their behaviour as youthful indiscretion and said they were just unlucky enough to have theirs recorded and posted online, something earlier generations didn’t have to worry about. But that take misses the point. This is not the first time during Donald J. Trump’s presidency that American kids have been seen acting like racist trolls offline. The video is part of a pattern.
The teenager in the video, identified by CNN as Nick Sandmann, released a statement on Sunday that said the confrontation was a misunderstanding, and that he never meant to intimidate Phillips, merely defuse a tense situation. He said that some of the counter demonstrators, who were adults, started the testy exchange with the teens by calling names, or telling them to “go back to Europe” and that they “stole our land”. Sandmann also alleges that he and his family have received death threats because of the video.
Misunderstanding or not, one thing is indisputable: most of the boys in the video were wearing MAGA hats, a sign of solidarity with a president millions of Americans consider a racist criminal and millions of others support. That they put these hats on in the first place is a provocation, whether they understand it or not. Those hats will still be around after Trump is out of office. Those hats will be starting arguments, and even fights, for decades to come.
Trump’s critics seek his impeachment for corruption. They want to see his presidency end as soon as possible. But the impact he has already had, and will continue to have, in shaping the political and social consciousness of young people will continue long after he leaves office. His rants will remain on YouTube, where kids and adults and play them over and over again, searing his words into their minds.
The risk of self-indoctrination with the assistance of unfeeling social media algorithms is well documented, and a recent study even suggested that the elderly were more likely to share fake news online, either because of digital illiteracy or cognitive decline with age. Maybe both, a little from Column A, and a little from Column B. Meanwhile, teenagers are assembling racist flash mobs on the National Mall to try to intimidate an indigenous person, just for fun. The teens were there as part of the March for Life, a rally for abortion opponents, and had come there to represent the Catholic school.
Trump’s announcement that he intended to run for president came with a call to deny Muslims entry into the US. He declared that Mexicans should also stay out. Trump has also repeatedly used the racist slur ‘Pocahontas’ against Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has spoken of having Native American heritage herself. (Pocahontas was a legendary Powhatan princess in the 17th Century. Long story.) In the video of Phillips standing up to the teenagers in MAGA hats, we see that young people are acting out what they see the president do on TV and conducting their behaviour in plain view of dozens of cameras. They want to be on TV, too.
These kids’ brains are still forming, but they are still responsible for their actions. They will also be responsible for voting in 2020, some of them at least. The most charitable interpretation of the video is that they must have somehow been hypnotised into this grotesque display, hypnotised by social media and families that never taught them better than to harass others. It is an absolute shame to the school and to themselves. But still, we should ask how can these kids be deprogrammed as there is certainly more hope for them than for their own elders in Covington, Kentucky, who themselves enable their twisted, trollish worldview.
Phillips himself said it best, in an interview with The Post, describing the shameful vigour of the teenagers who disrespected him so shamelessly.
He said: “That energy could be turned into feeding the people, cleaning up our communities and figuring out what else we could do. We need the young people to be doing that instead of saying: ‘These guys are our enemies’.”
Trump could likely lose in 2020, especially if he fails to entertain his base. He’s already haemorrhaging support among anyone not fully invested in his nativist, nationalist performance, and even there he has shown weakness in polls as Trump governing is not nearly as compelling as Trump campaigning. But even if does lose, that doesn’t mean his legacy will disappear. Indeed, as television show The Simpsons predicted, the next president will have a big job in undoing the damage Trump did and will continue to do, frozen in time online. That’ll be true no matter how his presidency ends.
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