Perhaps it’s no surprise that the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East has brought out the worst in so many conservative supporters of President Trump. But even if that prospect seems to have been put off for now, it’s likely that the ugly impulses that have surfaced will emerge again and again as we approach the elections in November.

Democrats should decide now how they want to respond.

First, let’s take a little tour around the Republican authoritarian mind-set in the wake of President Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani:

  • Rep. Douglas A. Collins said that Democrats are “in love with terrorists, we see that they mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families.” I have a vague memory of a presidential candidate attacking a Gold Star family in 2016; can’t quite recall who that was.
  • “The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership,” said former U.N. ambassador and future presidential candidate Nikki Haley. After it was pointed out to her that literally zero Democrats were mourning Soleimani’s death, she argued that “mourning” means wishing he were still alive, and anyone who criticized the decision to kill him wishes he were still alive and is therefore “mourning” him. That, of course, is not what “mourning” means.
  • When Rep. Pramila Jayapal said the administration had presented no evidence of an “imminent threat” that necessitated Soleimani’s assassination, Rep. John Rutherford of Florida responded by saying, “You and your squad of Ayatollah sympathizers are spreading propaganda that divides our nation and strengthens our enemies.”
  • White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said, “The alarmists and apologists show skepticism about our own intelligence and sympathy for Soleimani.”
  • Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina tweeted that “the vast majority” agrees with the killing, while “Democrats are falling all over themselves equivocating about a terrorist.”

Republicans are quite certain not only that the American public shares their belief that the Soleimani assassination was the right thing to do, but that anyone who disagrees must love terrorists.

There will be much more polling in coming days, but as it happens, the first poll out from USA Today finds that 55 percent of the public say the killing of Soleimani and its aftermath made the United States less safe, with only 24 percent saying it made us more safe. The poll also found:

There was overwhelming agreement — in each case by more than 6-1 — that the attack made it more likely Iran would strike American interests in the Middle East (69%), that there would be terrorist attacks on the American homeland (63%), and that the United States and Iran would go to war with each other (62%).
By 52%-8%, those polled said the attack made it more likely that Iran would develop nuclear weapons.

It’s true that the poll found that a plurality of 42 percent supported the killing, but that’s actually pretty low given all the noise that Trump’s propaganda machine has whipped up. And the more important point is that solid majorities reject the arguments Trump is making around the killing — that it was necessary to keep us safe and to weaken Iran as a threat.

America, it seems, is a nation of Ayatollah-sympathizing, terrorist-loving Soleimani-mourners. Or maybe most people just don’t buy the proposition that unless you support every decision Donald Trump makes you’re a traitor.

This has a familiar ring: Going all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Acts, advocates for war have accused those who don’t share their enthusiasm of being traitors. More recently, the September 11 attacks were followed by endless accusations from Republicans that any Democrat who failed to support whatever the Bush administration wanted to do was supporting al-Qaeda, and later, Saddam Hussein. As George W. Bush himself said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

The difference now is that Democrats don’t appear particularly frightened of that charge. But how should they respond to the specific accusation that if they disagree with Trump, they love terrorists?

In the past, they’ve responded by trying to show they can be tough. That’s why so many Democratic leaders voted for the Iraq War, at a time when memories of 9/11 were still fresh and nearly two-thirds of the public supported the war.

But now they have an opportunity. While Republican rhetoric may be the same, the public is on the side of Democrats and against a deeply unpopular president. So instead of whimpering in fear and trying to change the subject, they can actually call attention to the execrable charge and make Republicans the issue.

For instance, a presidential candidate could say:

I refuse to allow you to say that the majority of Americans who question President Trump’s erratic decision-making are terrorist sympathizers. And when I’m president, I’ll treat Americans with respect for a change. When Republicans disagree with me, I’ll explain why I think they’re wrong, but I won’t call them traitors. I think we’ve all had enough of that kind of poisonous politics.

To be clear, I’m not saying that candidates should say that we can all join hands and work together. This is about what kind of rhetoric is going to be tolerated and what should be condemned. This is the perfect opportunity to get Republicans on the defensive for their hatefulness.

And it isn’t going anywhere, no matter happens with Iran. As we get closer to the election and the possibility of Democratic victory becomes real, Republicans will get more extreme in their words. Their predictions of cataclysm (the governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, recently said that if Democrats win the Senate “we will take that first step into a thousand years of darkness”) will regularly bleed over into accusations that if you don’t support Trump then you wish for the apocalypse and therefore hate America.

That kind of rancid bile shouldn’t go unchallenged for a second.

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