Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Bombs are sent through the mail to CNN, George Soros, James Clapper, former President Barack Obama, and other persons targeted by President Donald Trump for vilification and abuse. A theory begins to circulate on the far edges of the right that the bombs are a “false flag” intended to discredit the president and his party. The theory rapidly moves from the edge to the center.

There the theory lingers, even as police apprehend a suspect and tow away a van festooned with pro-Trump stickers.

On the afternoon of October 24, the false-flag theory was all but endorsed by Rush Limbaugh:

And so, in the midst of this atmosphere, we have this series of bombs that were supposedly sent today, exclusively to Democrats. And it just—there’s a smell test that this stuff has to pass, and so far a lot of people’s noses are in the air, not quite certain of what to make of this. This is just—it’s not Republicans that show up, for example, at the offices of the Family—what is it, some pro-life group’s offices, some guy shows up with a gun and was going to shoot people, got caught before he was able to shoot anyone. Family Research Center, I think, yeah.

Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing. Even though every event, like mass shootings, remember, every mass shooting there is, the Democrats in the media try to make everybody think right off the bat that some Tea Partier did it, or some talk-radio fan did it, or some Fox News viewer did it. Turns out, it’s never, ever the case. Not one of these bombs went off. And if a Democrat operative’s purpose here is to make it look like, hey, you know, there are mobs everywhere, the mobs are not just Democrat mobs. I mean, look at this, you’ve got people here trying to harm CNN, and Obama, and Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Debbie “Blabbermouth” Schultz. It just—it might serve a purpose here.

On the afternoon of October 25, the false-flag theory gained a respectful hearing from The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, a Fox News contributor and one of the president’s most outspoken defenders on TV and social media, who in a tweet compared the current incident to the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001:

People should stop acting like it’s insane to even consider possibility of hidden motivations in latest terrorism-by-mail scheme since last such scheme targeting political/media establishment did just that (pretending to be Al Qaeda when they were not)

That same afternoon, a tweet from an anonymous account that alleged “FAKE BOMBS MADE TO SCARE AND PICK UP BLUE SYMPATHY VOTE” gained a “like” from Donald Trump Jr.

And at 10:37 a.m. on October 26, the false-flag theory was winkingly endorsed on Twitter by the president himself:

Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this “Bomb” stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows - news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!

It’s striking that the president has not offered a word of sympathy for any of the targets of the bombs. After all, even if the “false flag” theory were true to any degree, the people targeted were indeed targeted. The motives or identity of the would-be bomber do not mitigate the shock and threat to the person receiving the bomb—including the line-of-duty security personnel who encountered the bombs sent to Obama and others whose mail is screened for them.

The president did offer a generalized, perfunctory condemnation of political violence at a rally in Wisconsin on October 24, calling the bombs “an attack on democracy itself” and urging “all sides to come together in peace and harmony.” Yet even within those apparently scripted remarks, he could not refrain from an attack on the media institutions that had been targeted by the bomber:

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.

Later in the rally, in apparently unscripted remarks, he added an extra gibe all his own: The media, he said, “can’t take a joke.”

The closest the president could come to an appropriate comment on the attacks was to retweet with the words “I agree wholeheartedly” a very correct statement by Vice President Mike Pence midday on October 24:

We condemn the attempted attacks against fmr Pres Obama, the Clintons, @CNN& others. These cowardly actions are despicable & have no place in this Country. Grateful for swift response of @SecretService, @FBI& local law enforcement. Those responsible will be brought to justice.

Suspicion that this retweet originated with the president’s communication team rather than the president himself was strengthened when at 7:18 a.m. on Thursday—an hour of the day when the president is secluded and alone—he tweeted a much more vicious sentiment:

A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!

He returned to this theme early on Friday morning:

Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, “it’s just not Presidential!

When people talk about Trump condoning and inviting political violence, his behavior over the past 48 hours—and that of his followers—is exactly what they have in mind: the utter lack of sympathy for those attacked or threatened; the readiness to blame victims of terrorism for being terrorized; the determination to exonerate the president of any consequences for his own wild behavior; the indulgence of wild conspiracy theories as a means to achieve that exoneration, piped directly into the Oval Office from the furthest extremes of American life.

Only eight days ago, Trump praised a Republican member of Congress who physically attacked a reporter without provocation and then lied to the police about the attack. Today, Trump claims that there’s a conspiracy to blame him for bombs mailed to CNN and other people he has abused. And this claim is not Trump’s alone; it is echoed by many of the apologists and defenders of his government. Democracy has a rule, an absolute prohibition on the use or threat of violence to coerce political ends. Trump is walking the road away from democracy, and he is not walking alone.

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