The Digital Dictator


I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night –Roman emperor Gaius Caligula (AD 12–AD 41).

Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich. –Donald Trump

President-elect Donald Trump’s vernacular has been compared to that of Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and even the unpredictable and vengeful Roman emperor Caligula.

The billionaire populist’s posts via Twitter and other media spark such comparisons:

Hitler: “Make Germany great again.”
Trump campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

Caligula: “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me!”
Trump: “My twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.”

Mussolini: “It’s better to live one day as a lion than 100 days as a sheep.”
And Trump, via Twitter: “It’s better to live one day as a lion than 100 days as a sheep.”

Now that’s scary. A lot of damage can be wrought in 140 characters. And if our President-elect doesn’t tone down and apologize for hate-filled and fascist-style language, our nation faces an era of racial and ethnic divisiveness that threatens life in the America he purports to love.

Dictators’ lingua franca has long swirled around nationalism and hatred toward minority groups: Hitler attacked and killed Jewish, homosexual, and disabled people; Caligula, who slept little and ranted lots, eliminated his political rivals; Mussolini launched ethnic cleansing against Slovenes and bemoaned the low birth rates of the “White Race.”


Trump, even post-election, vows to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out because ‘when Mexico sends its people,’ he has said, they’re sending ‘rapists.’ Such moments are numerous: In the wake of civil unrest in Baltimore in 2015, Trump tweeted about “thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore.” He apparently mocked a disabled reporter and used broken English to mimic Asian negotiators. He has called for barring all Muslim immigration, and requiring an “ideological test” for all new immigrants.

Within days of the election, CNN chronicled a litany of hate speech and violence, some by Trump supporters: racist, pro-Trump graffiti painted inside a high school in Minnesota; a Muslim student threatened to be “set on fire with a lighter unless she removed her hijab” in Michigan; a swastika surrounded by the words ‘Make America White Again’ in a softball dugout in New York. Even Trump voters are being pulled out of cars and beaten up, too.

Will President Donald J. Trump continue to enable such clashes, reject Oval Office-style decorum, or become a Dictator for the Digital Age, an American Caligula? The rogue-and-rude reality TV star might simply reflect America’s dissolution of discourse one could term The New Vulgarity.

Harshness and obscenity is common online, creating an environment that seems to inure many Americans to the awfulness of the exchange. Trump might be a cyberbully (his attacks on a former Miss Universe alone would qualify), but so are lots of other people.


Words wield power and influence culture. Psychologists term such dialogue the “online disinhibition effect,” in which people are likely to trash social mores because of perceived anonymity and a sense of distance. A few results: “Exposure to disagreeable uncivil political talk induces feelings of anger,” writes Bryan T. Gervais, an assistant political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio in a 2015 article the Journal of Information Technology & Politics. While “exposure to like-minded incivility increases the use of uncivil behavior in political comments” online.

Yet civility has merit, professor P.M. Forni, director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins has noted: “When we treat others with kindness and consideration, we show them that we value them as persons… If you are considerate, people will like you and trust you.”

Trust? Trump slings mud at various US tenets: Freedom of religion (Islam). Freedom of the press (ongoing rants against the New York Times). Freedom of expression, as he tweeted two days after an election he called rigged: “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”

Responses to that November 10 @realDonaldTrump tweet, most with names and photos, included: “Are you f***ing kidding me? Suck it up president-elect,” and “‘Professional protestors???’ You are a Shakespearean, Tammany Hall rat caliber villain.” And, a personal favorite: ” You need to start acting like a President. Don’t tweet-whine like a baby.” (There were a few pornographic smack-downs later removed).

Yet Trump has helped normalize such speech online, in his memoirs, and on radio, TV, and other media. His quips and diatribes—shockingly vulgar language about women and pejorative arrows aimed at minorities—have cracked open doors for the verbal women-bashing, immigrant-threatening, and race-based bullying.


In a November 13 interview on 60 Minutes, when asked about the hundreds of hate-crimes reported by the Southern Policy Law Center, Trump told people to: “Stop it.” He added, though, that he thought it was “a very small amount,” and that he had seen only a few instances.

Trump says he will be more restrained as president, especially on social media, “if I use it at all,” he told 60 Minutes. And he has slightly backed off his criticism of street protests and a full ban on Muslim immigration.

Yet virtual power corrupts. Trump, who bragged of nearly 30 million social media followers by mid-November, certainly hasn’t balked at dictatorial comparisons. In early 2016, he addressed his retweet of the Mussolini quote with a rhetorical dodge: “It’s a very good quote… What difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else—it’s a very good quote.”

Some supporters and politicos have argued that Trump said rash or offensive things during the campaign to get elected, and that he won’t really act on such language.

Yet consider this November 21, 1922 Times article: “…sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as bait to catch messes of followers and keep them aroused.”

Trump, November 13, 2016: “Well, sometimes you need a certain rhetoric to get people motivated.”

Last week, after telling protestors “Don’t be afraid,” on 60 Minutes, Trump named alt-right Rasputin Stephen K. Bannon as his senior counselor and chief strategist in the White House. Online and elsewhere, Bannon has fueled the nationalist movement that promotes white supremacist and racist sentiments, including claims that migrants spread disease. By Friday, the president-elect had named a few cabinet positions, including: Michael Flynn, a paid advisor to authoritarian regimes in Turkey and Russia, as national security advisor; and Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, was rejected by the Senate in “his bid for a federal judgeship in 1986 over a series of racist remarks he’d made.”

If Trump’s gracious acceptance speech instead exemplifies his goal “to bind the wounds of division” then these appointments and likely others do not bode well. President-elect Trump said he was saddened by the recent hate acts. They make us sad, too. Please, Mr. Trump, move to protect—in words and deeds—the actual freedoms and anti-discrimination ideals written, so eloquently, into our Constitution, laws, and modern codes of honor.

It is the presidential thing to do.

J. Cavanaugh Simpson is a university lecturer, essayist, and a former staff writer for The Miami Herald among other publications. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, The Connecticut Review, Utne Reader, WYPR's The Signal, as well as in the book collections Letters to J.D. Salinger (University of Wisconsin Press) and Signs of Life in the USA. (Bedford/St. Martin’s). As a foreign correspondent, she has written for such venues as The Baltimore Sun, reporting from Argentina, India, Cuba, and China. Cavanaugh Simpson earned her master's from The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars; her thesis, on Cuba's dissident journalists, was funded by Harvard University’s Goldsmith Research Award. She is a recipient of the 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Arts Innovation Grant for "Fostering the Next Generation of Scientist Essayists." She is currently working on a book about the evolution of digital culture and counterculture, and can be reached at [email protected]. More from this author →