Last Wednesday night, after bombs were sent to a number of Donald Trump’s most prominent enemies, he held a rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin. A president with even a pretense to statesmanship would have cancelled it — the country was in the middle of what can reasonably be described as a terrorist attack, with someone attempting mass murder against leading Democrats. Trump, needless to say, is not such a president.
At the rally — which featured Trump fans chanting, “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton, to whom one of the bombs was addressed — Trump called for the country to come together “in peace and harmony.” Then, in characteristic fashion, he blamed the press for America’s climate of simmering rage. “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories,” he said.
It was an audacious act of misdirection, especially since the attack included a bomb sent to the New York offices of CNN, one of Trump’s favourite punching bags. But while Trump’s words were meant to further derange American political debate, they were, in one sense, clarifying. They demonstrated the rank disingenuousness of conservative complaints about “incivility,” a term that’s increasingly used to conflate expressions of political anger with political violence, equating yelling at politicians with trying to kill them.
Let’s acknowledge up front that the right does not have a monopoly on political violence. Last year a leftist, James Hodgkinson, opened fire on Republican congressmen as they practiced for a charity baseball game, wounding several people, most seriously Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana. In response to her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, received a threatening letter that claimed to contain ricin. (Tests showed it didn’t.) In what appears to be a separate incident,a 74-year-old Long Island man was arrested this month on charges of threatening senators with death if they voted for Kavanaugh.
These acts should be condemned unreservedly. But there is no serious comparison between left-wing and right-wing violence in this country, either in the scale of the phenomenon or the degree to which it is encouraged by political leaders.
According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacists were responsible for 18 of 34 “extremist-related murders” in the United States in 2017. Over the last decade, the report says, people on the far right were responsible for 71 percent of extremist killings. (Radical Islamists committed most of the rest.)
The violent part of the right is integrated into the Republican Party in a way that has no analogue on the left. A few months before the Unite the Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that devolved into a deadly riot, Corey Stewart, now the Republican candidate for Senate in that state, appeared at an event sponsored by one of Unite the Right’s organisers, Jason Kessler. (He’s since disavowed both Kessler and Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist he once described as a “personal hero.”) One rallygoer, James Allsup, had been president of the Washington State University College Republicans. He stepped down amid the ensuing controversy, but was later elected a precinct committee officer by his local party organisation. (The Republican National Committee has denounced him.)
In a video extolling violence, Gavin McInnes, the founder of the violent right-wing street gang called the Proud Boys, proclaimed, “Fighting solves everything.” This month, he was invited to speak at the Metropolitan Republican Club, a GOP clubhouse on the Upper East Side, where he reportedly re-enacted the 1960 murder of a Japanese Socialist Party leader.
Afterward, members of the Proud Boys were videotaped beating anti-fascist protesters while shouting homophobic slurs. (Five Proud Boys and three others have since been arrested).
Also this month, Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County, helped organise a protest in which Proud Boys swarmed the Democratic House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, who was out campaigning for the midterms. (He later apologised.) When Roger Stone, the right-wing dirty trickster and Trump ally, spoke at a Republican event in Oregon this year, he asked local Proud Boys to provide security.
At this point, someone devoted to the proposition that “both sides” are responsible for our incendiary political environment might point to the black-clad anarchist street fighters of antifa who regularly brawl with the far right. But even if you believe that the antifa movement is as violent as its right-wing opponents — it’s not — it has no real connection to the Democratic Party, which by most accounts it despises. True, Rep. Keith Ellison — who is running for attorney general in Minnesota — once posted a picture of himself holding a book about antifa, but aside from that, Democratic politicians don’t spout antifa rhetoric, much less appear at antifa events. Antifa doesn’t act as muscle for Democratic operatives. Its activists are almost entirely outside the ecosystem of progressive media.
McInnes, conversely, was, until last year, a contributor to Fox News, the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. He now has a show on CRTV, a right-wing online video network whose contributors include Michelle Malkin and former Fox News host Eric Bolling.
There was a time in American politics, 50 or so years ago, when there was a culture of violent insurrection on the far left. Radical groups like the Weather Underground planted bombs, and the Black Panthers strutted around with guns, leading some Republicans — and the NRA — to embrace gun control.
Those days are over. Now it’s the right that flaunts weaponry at political events and celebrates taking up arms to settle political disputes. In 2016 Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., sent a tweet paraphrasing the Fox News personality Andrew Napolitano: “Why do we have a Second Amendment? It’s not to shoot deer. It’s to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical!”
Of course, no one has done more to stoke political violence than Trump. During the presidential campaign, he encouraged his febrile supporters to beat up protesters, even offering to pay their legal fees. He said that if Hillary Clinton was elected, “Second Amendment people” might be able to stop her from picking judges. Last year, he tweeted a doctored video that showed him tackling a man with a CNN logo for a head. In a speech to law enforcement, he urged the police to rough up criminal suspects: “Please don’t be too nice.” Last week, he praised Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte for assaulting a journalist, a crime to which Gianforte pleaded guilty. “Any guy who can do a body slam — he’s my kind of guy,” Trump said.
Right now in America we have an authoritarian, demagogic, compulsively dishonest president who demonizes his opponents, telling his devotees that Democrats are “evil” and that anyone who votes for them is “crazy.” He has painted a caravan of desperate Central American migrants — many of whom plan to turn themselves in at the border and ask for asylum — as a dangerous invading “onslaught,” and called out the American military in response.
Trump describes journalists as the “enemy of the American people.” When someone sent bombs to leading figures in the Democratic opposition, he blamed the media for covering him too aggressively.
To talk about a crisis of “civility” in these circumstances is to deliberately obscure what’s happening. On Wednesday, Fox News was in the middle of a segment denouncing protesters who heckled Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he was dining at a Cuban restaurant when the host, Bill Hemmer, had to transition to news of the bombs. “We have some breaking news now along the same vein,” he said.
The dubious category of “civility” lets people on the right pretend that mailing a politician a bomb is in the same vein as berating a politician in a restaurant. It’s a sort of right-wing political correctness, treating rudeness toward powerful people as akin to assault.
In June, actor Robert De Niro cursed at Trump during a speech at the Tony Awards. On Thursday, news broke that De Niro was among those who were sent explosive devices. Only one of these things is a problem. We are in a dark place in this country. The blame belongs with Trump, not those shouting their opposition to him.
© 2018 New York Times News Service