By Ellen McGirt
May 30, 2017

If it feels like civilization is falling apart lately, you may be right. A new study shows that the recent presidential election has freed people up to publicly say and do some awful things that they might not have previously.

Writing in Bloomberg, author and Harvard professor Cass R. Sunstein cites a new paper from three economists, Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago, Georgy Egorov of Northwestern University and Stefano Fiorin of UCLA. The researchers asked study participants if they would contribute to a clearly xenophobic organization if given the option of anonymity. Half were told that Donald Trump was slated to win the election. The researchers found that for the group that believed that Trump was the clear winner, anonymity was no longer a necessary pre-condition for their unpopular view.

Sunstein explains how this study supports the deep anxiety some voters are feeling in the U.S. and Europe. “Many people worry that if prominent politicians signal that they dislike and fear immigrants, foreigners and people of minority religions, they will unleash people’s basest impulses and fuel violence,” he says. “In their view, social norms of civility, tolerance and respect are fragile. If national leaders such as President Donald Trump flout those norms, they might unravel.”

Again, they’re not wrong. From Sunstein’s analysis:

The upshot is that if Trump had not come on the scene, a lot of Americans would refuse to authorize a donation to an anti-immigrant organization unless they were promised anonymity. But with Trump as president, people feel liberated. Anonymity no longer matters, apparently because Trump’s election weakened the social norm against supporting anti-immigrant groups. It’s now OK to be known to agree “that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

This study came to mind yesterday after reports surfaced of a scuffle on the floor of the Texas State Capitol. Texas State Representative Matt Rinaldi, angry that a thousand immigrant rights supporters were in the building to protest the state’s new anti-sanctuary cities law, became embroiled in a heated exchange with his colleagues. Calling the protesters a “disgrace,” he declared, “Fuck them, I called ICE,” or U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, to have them removed. Then he threatened to “put a bullet in the head” of a Democratic colleague. Rinaldi said on his Facebook page that the threat was made in self-defense. “When I told the Democrats I called ICE, Representative Ramon Romero physically assaulted me, and other Democrats were held back by colleagues. During that time Poncho told me that he would ‘get me on the way to my car.’…I made it clear that if he attempted to, in his words, ‘get me,’ I would shoot him in self-defense.”

Regardless of where you are on immigration or Texas politics, this feels like a pretty clear unraveling of social norms.

So perhaps when Jeremy Joseph Christian, a white supremacist, boarded a Portland, Ore. light rail train on Friday night, he thought that he was going to be around like-minded people. But when powerful people send xenophobic signals, not everyone gets the same message.

Christian began hurling anti-Muslim hate speech at two young women, one wearing hijab. His threatening behavior unnerved people on the train; Christian stabbed three men who tried to calm him. Two of them, 53-year-old Ricky John Best and 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, died of their wounds. All during the Memorial Day holiday, the men were remembered as heroes.

Though it’s hard not to see this horrific event as part of a larger pattern of endorsed violence, there was also another social norm at work that evening. And according to the detailed account in The Oregonian, it was wasn’t based on hate.

Rachel May, a single mother of five, tried to comfort the bleeding Namkai-Meche. As he was taken away by paramedics, he had one last request. “Tell everyone on this train I love them,” he told her.

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