There are three common responses we’ll be hearing as people try to understand and contextualize these events. The first is to say that it’s Trump’s fault, as many liberals will do. The second is to say that it means nothing and has nothing to do with Trump, as many conservatives will do. And the third is to blame it on broad forces that float about the country with no particular partisan pull, such as “polarization” or “division” or “anger.”
Allow me to suggest that “blame” is too narrow a way to make sense of a series of attempted bombings aimed at precisely the people Trump and other Republicans spend a huge amount of time vilifying. We don’t have to look for clues about whether the person responsible has a MAGA hat, or what their party registration is. We don’t have to assign direct blame beyond a reasonable doubt.
But what we can say is this: Given what Trump has done and said, this was absolutely predictable. In fact, it’s a wonder that it took this long.
It’s not just that Trump advocates violence against his political opponents — though he does. It’s that everything about his rhetoric pushes his supporters in that direction, even if the overwhelming majority will never get quite to the point where they’ll actually commit this kind of act of terrorism.
The first is Trump’s explicit celebration of violence against political opponents. He lauds a violent assault a Republican congressman committed against a reporter who had the temerity to ask about health-care policy. When confronted with protesters, he regularly talks about the violent retribution he would like to visit against them. Some samples: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” “Part of the problem, and part of the reason it takes so long, is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?”
There is simply no question that Trump has repeatedly sent the message to his supporters that politically motivated violence is not a violation of proper behavior and ideals, but instead is perfectly appropriate if you detest the person against whom you’re committing that violence.
Second, Trump regularly says that ordinary legal procedures and systems are inadequate to mete out the harsh punishment that those who oppose him deserve. While every politician has changes he or she would like to make to one law or another, Trump has undertaken a sustained assault on the very idea that we have a legal system that should be respected even if it produces outcomes you don’t like.
Trump spins out wild stories about “deep state” conspiracies against him. He complains that immigration laws prevent the harsh treatment he’d like to deliver to immigrants, and that libel laws unfairly prevent him from suing reporters for criticizing him. He encourages his crowds, even two years after the 2016 election, to shout “Lock her up!” at the mention of Hillary Clinton’s name. By now his red-faced supporters have probably forgotten what imagined crime she was supposed to have committed; all they know is that she opposed Trump, so she should be tossed behind bars.
Third — and this is vitally important — Trump paints for his supporters an apocalyptic picture of the horrors Democrats want to bring to the United States, presenting the most horrific fantasies as fact. That picture is so terrifying that if you were to actually believe it, violence against Democrats might be a perfectly appropriate response.
When Trump says things like “They want to turn America, these Democrats — and that’s what they want — into a giant sanctuary for criminal aliens and the MS-13 killers,” or “Democrats want to abolish America’s borders and allow drugs and gangs to pour into our country unabated,” or “Democrats want to … turn us into another Venezuela, take away your health care, destroy your Second Amendment, and Democrats want to throw your borders wide open to deadly drugs and ruthless gangs,” that is not something you can simply fight by voting.
If you thought that Democrats want to force the entire country to starve and then allow MS-13 gang members to come to your community so that they can kill you and your family — which, because we have to keep repeating this, is literally what Trump says — then why wouldn’t you feel that any possible means, including violence, should be employed to stop them? It’s only self-defense.
The politically savvy might dismiss that rhetoric as just crazy hyperbole, but there are people who take it seriously. And even if only a tiny number of Trump supporters go so far as to beat up liberals they encounter or even undertake a campaign of terrorist bombings (granting that we don’t know who sent these bombs, but it would be rather extraordinary if a collection of Trump’s enemies was targeted just by coincidence), that’s only because most people have emotional controls that prevent them from breaking the law in that way and physically harming other people. But not all.
Yes, Democrats have said some intemperate things, too. But Trump has sent the small number of violent people a message. It’s one they might be hearing loud and clear.