In the wake of a string of political violence that includes attempted mail bombings and what is believed to be the worst attack on Jews in US history, many are charging that President Trump is responsible for the uptick in violence. President Trump obviously never instructed his supporters to bomb or shoot his political opponents so the question is how much responsibility the president bears for the recent violence. The answer, if we are honest with ourselves, has to be “some.”
This isn’t to say that Donald Trump is legally responsible for the actions of overzealous political supporters. There is a well-established legal test to determine whether someone has incited violence. The Brandenburg test created by the Supreme Court holds that incitement requires “producing imminent lawless action.” Even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.
What is legal is not always responsible, ethical or smart. This is especially true when the speaker is the president of the United States and wields a “bully pulpit” that addresses millions of supporters. While the president has not called for his supporters to directly confront his critics (at least not since the campaign), he has contributed to the atmosphere of anger and distrust that permeates American politics.
Over the past few months, a pattern has begun to emerge. That pattern consists of people on the right side of the political spectrum launching attacks on people and organizations that President Trump has demonized. In Pittsburgh, the murders were not only directed at the synagogue’s worshippers because they were Jews, but also because they were thought to be pro-immigration.
The murderer wrote on Gab, a social media site frequented by the alt-right, that Jewish efforts to help refugees were “sugar-coated evil.” One of the last posts made by the shooter referenced the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, saying, “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
Although the killer claims that he did not vote for President Trump, who he called a “globalist,” there are similarities in the anti-immigrant postings between the two men. President Trump tweeted last June, “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country.”
The Pittsburgh murderer used the same militant terminology for illegal immigrants. Six days before his killing spree he wrote, “I have noticed a change in people saying 'illegals' that now say 'invaders.' I like this.”
The shooter’s concern that “my people” would be “slaughtered” hearkens back to the President Trump’s claims that illegals are violent criminals and the Administration’s decision to emphasize murders committed by illegal immigrants. Despite these claims, there is no statistical evidence for a violent crime wave by illegal immigrants.
Similarly, President Trump’s rhetoric on the news media can be linked to attacks and threats in the real world. On numerous occasions, Trump has called the media “the enemy of the American People.” The idea that the media is an enemy has led to action by his supporters on at least two occasions.
The Florida mail bomber dubbed the “MAGA Bomber,” is now infamous for sending bombs to CNN and Democrats, who President Trump and other Republicans have likened to an “angry mob.” Less well known is the case of another Trump supporter who was arrested in August for threatening to kill employees of the Boston Globe. The man used the familiar phrase “enemy of the people” in his threats and accused the paper of “treasonous and seditious acts” after it asked papers around the country to share its op-ed criticizing Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the press.
It should be clear by now that words matter and when the president tells his supporters that the media is the enemy and that migrants are invaders, some of those supporters take him seriously. If enemies and invaders are trying to destroy America while you are trying to “Make America Great Again,” the logical next step for some listeners will be to destroy those enemies before they can destroy America.
President Trump doesn’t even seem to believe all of his own rhetoric. After pledging to “lock her up,” Trump declined to have the Justice Department investigate Hillary for a myriad of alleged crimes from murder to aiding the Russians in the election and selling out America’s uranium supply. Less than a month after the 2016 election, Trump said that she had suffered enough.
This isn’t to say that Donald Trump is the only offender. There are many on both sides of the political spectrum who make comments that are just as bad – or worse – as what President Trump says. The difference is that they are not the president, who is supposed to be the leader of all of the American people as well as the person responsible for upholding the rule of law. Additionally, few have a following as large as President Trump or one that inspires such quasi-religious devotion.
With great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has not shown himself to be capable of handling that responsibility. The failed MAGA Bomber had not yet even faded from the headlines when the president tweeted this morning that “The Fake News Media” is the “true Enemy of the People.”
The man who threatened Globe employees, the MAGA Bomber, and the synagogue mass murderer made their own individual choices to kill and threaten their fellow Americans. Donald Trump didn’t tell them to do what they did, but neither is the president entirely blameless. Trump was elected president amid a fear that Democrats and immigrants are violent criminals who are destroying the country. He has made a conscious decision to continue with the heated rhetoric in order to urge the base toward the polls in yet another most-important-election-of-our-lifetime.
There is no sign that either President Trump or the Democrats have any plans to ease up on the divisive words that that are intended to pit Americans against each other. If the country longed for an uniter after the divisive Obama presidency, it is clear that Donald Trump, who brings more of the same identity politics, is not that man.
As tensions rise, there will be more bloodshed. Radicals from both the right and left will feed on the dire warnings from their respective tribes and take matters into their own hands. Politicians on both sides bear a moral, if not legal, responsibility for the violence.
Originally published on The Resurgent