The president of the United States suggested last week that his political supporters might resort to violence if they didn’t get their way.
The statement didn’t even get that much attention. I’m guessing you heard a lot more about the college-admissions scandal than about the president’s threat of extralegal violence. So let me tell you a little more about the threat.
In an Oval Office interview with writers from the right-wing news site Breitbart, President Donald Trump began complaining about Paul Ryan. As speaker of the House, Ryan blocked efforts by other House Republicans to subpoena and investigate people on the political left. Trump’s loyal allies in the House “wanted to go tougher,” Trump said, “but they weren’t allowed to by leadership.”
To Trump, the incident was part of a larger problem: “You know, the left plays a tougher game. It’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. OK? I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
This wasn’t the first time Trump had mused about violence, of course. He has talked about “Second Amendment people” preventing the appointment of liberal judges. He’s encouraged police officers to bang suspects’ heads against car roofs. He has suggested his supporters “knock the hell” out of hecklers. At a rally shortly before 2018 Election Day, he went on a similar riff about Bikers for Trump and the military.
I’m well aware of the various see-no-evil attempts to excuse this behaviour: That’s just how he talks. Don’t take him literally. Other Republicans are keeping him in check. His speeches and tweets don’t really matter.
But they do matter. The president’s continued encouragement of violence — and of white nationalism — is part of the reason that white-nationalist violence is increasing. Funny how that works.
After Trump’s latest threat, I reached out to several experts in democracy and authoritarianism to ask what they made of it. Their answers were consistent: No, the United States does not appear at risk of widespread political violence anytime soon. But Trump’s words are still corroding democracy and public safety.
His latest incitement fit a historical pattern, and one with “scary echoes,” as Daniel Ziblatt, who co-wrote the recent book “How Democracies Die,” told me. Trump combined lies about his political opponents — Democrats who need to be investigated (for made-up scandals) — with allusions to a patriotic, violent response by ordinary citizens. Latin American autocrats, including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, have used this combination. So did European fascists in the 1930s.
The United States, thank goodness, does not have armed citizen militias carrying out regular attacks, as those other countries did. But our situation is still worrisome. “Violent talk can, at minimum, encourage lone-wolf violence,” Steven Levitsky, Ziblatt’s co-author and a Harvard political scientist, said. “It can also slowly normalise political violence, turning discourse and ideas that were once unsayable and even unthinkable into things that are sayable and thinkable.”
These risks are not just hypothetical. In 2017, a House candidate body-slammed a reporter who asked a probing question — behaviour with no recent precedent. Trump praised the now-congressman, Greg Gianforte, for the assault. In the Bright Light Watch survey of political scientists late last year, only 49 percent said the United States did not tolerate political violence, a notable decline from earlier levels. Some respondents cited Gianforte.
Statistics on hate crimes are notoriously unreliable, but the evidence strongly suggests that they’re rising. The FBI’s data shows an increase. The Anti-Defamation League reports a 73 percent rise in “extremist-related killings” during the last four years.
Not all attacks come from people who identify with the political right, obviously: The 2017 attempted mass murder of House Republicans on a baseball field is one horrific example. But most politically motivated attacks do indeed come from the right. Last year, 39 of the 50 extremist killings tracked by the ADL were committed by white supremacists, and another eight were committed by killers espousing anti-government views.
Drawing a direct line from the purveyors of hateful rhetoric to any specific hate crime is usually impossible. And it’s usually a mistake to try. The motive for these crimes — be it in New Zealand last week or Pittsburgh last year — is typically a stew of mental illness, personal anger and mixed-up ideology. Trump doesn’t deserve to be blamed for any specific crime. But he does deserve blame for the trend.
It isn’t very complicated: The man with the world’s largest bully pulpit keeps encouraging violence and white nationalism. Lo and behold, white-nationalist violence is on the rise. You have to work pretty hard to persuade yourself that’s just a big coincidence.
© 2019 New York Times News Service