We don’t know whether the events of this week would have happened without President Trump’s rhetoric. And we never truly will.
But the fact that Trump’s rhetoric is without compare in American politics makes that a logical question. And it justifies that question being asked in a way it hasn’t after other, similar acts of political violence.
There is a growing sense of grievance among Republicans about the narrative that Trump might have some culpability for the postal bombs that were sent to many of his high-profile political foes over the past week. A Florida man whose van was adorned with pro-Trump and anti-Democrat images (including some with Democrats in crosshairs) was arrested Friday, and that quickly led many people to connect the dots and suggest that Trump had inspired him — if they hadn’t already made such connections.
In response, some conservatives have asked why Trump gets this treatment when others haven’t. The media isn’t blaming Democrats for antifascists, or antifa, they argue. The media didn’t dwell upon this when Bernie Sanders supporter James T. Hogkinson fired on Republican members of Congress at a baseball practice last year, they note. These tweets from Ben Shapiro and others epitomize the argument:
Vanessa Trump, the estranged wife of Donald Trump Jr., even offered a conspicuously timed statement about her experience after opening a letter containing a suspicious powder. The argument seems to be: Look, the left does it, too.
The argument is a non sequitur, though — at least when it comes to the debate over whether President Trump bears blame.
It’s true that political violence is nothing new. We’ve had anthrax and ricin scares. We’ve had shootings. We’ve had violent protests that turned deadly. We’ve even had assassinations. You can’t just quickly look at whomever the perpetrator supports and say they are culpable.
But when you are confronted with a data set, you always look for the variables. You ask what’s different about this set of circumstances from the others. And in this case — unlike the others — Trump’s rhetoric is a highly unique variable.
Trump just last week approvingly spoke of a GOP congressman who body-slammed a reporter. He has promoted violence -- jokingly or otherwise -- at his rallies, including offering to pay the legal bills of supporters who rough protesters up and telling people to “knock the crap out of” anybody who might be wielding a tomato to throw. He has suggestively mused about “Second Amendment people” preventing Hillary Clinton from appointing judges as president. He has encouraged police to be rougher with criminal suspects. He has tweeted a GIF in which he body-slammed a CNN logo.
Trump has also gone further than other politicians in attacking his political opponents. He has regularly called the “fake news media” the “enemy of the American people.” He has said he would put Clinton in jail, despite her never being charged with a crime. And just two weeks ago, he gave a lengthy defense of calling opponents of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nominations “evil.”
This isn’t normal. It’s an aberration. And it’s possible it might produce aberrant results. There is no objective comparison to what Sanders said before Hodgkinson did what he did, which is why basically nobody blamed or even suggested possible blame for Sanders. There is no real parallel to antifa or the person who sent that powder to Vanessa Trump.
None of that is to say that Trump is definitely to blame. Just because his behavior is a break from the norm doesn’t make it inherently inciting or even wrong. (The latter is a moral judgment people are welcome to make for themselves.) But he has created a variable to which people can credibly point as a potential cause of violence. By stepping outside the bounds of accepted political rhetoric — by labeling his foes “evil” and the “enemy” and by at the very least toying with the promotion of violence — he has opened the door to such theories. Just like Trump’s racially coded appeals led to a debate about whether he was emboldening racists after Charlottesville, his aggressive rhetoric has justifiably led to a debate about whether it might inspire — in whatever measure — political violence.
The National Review’s David A. French said it well Friday:
Speech can inspire violence. It can. It’s one reason why civility and a sense of proportion in your speech aren’t just abstract, sanctimonious, or elitist concepts. They’re moral responsibilities for people with any kind of meaningful platform. Not all listening ears are sober-minded or entirely rational. And when they hear a public figure they admire thunder against his political opponents with extreme language, sometimes they’ll take extreme action in response.
All of this being said, it’s an unprovable assertion, and we’d all do well to emphasize that. The suspect in the mail bomb case, Cesar Sayoc, is someone who has had run-ins with the law for years — from long before Trump was a politician. He may have done these things even without a president who seems to revel in the idea of his supporters “knocking the crap out of” his opponents. There are plenty of radicalizing forces out there not named Donald Trump.
But to pretend this question represents a double standard on behalf of the media is to engage in some pretty illogical whataboutism. Trump has built a political brand and a base with edgy rhetoric, and the flip side of that is sometimes we all must ask when it’s gone over the edge.