America’s Dangerous Rhetorical Games

Allocating responsibility for violent acts to any politician or pundit should be done only with the greatest of care.

People march in memory of the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh
People march in memory of the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh (Cathal McNaughton / Reuters)

This story was updated on Wednesday, November 14 at 9:13 pm

It’s an all too familiar pattern. Every time there’s an act of political violence or threatened political violence, there’s a brief pause as both sides of our polarized nation wait to see who’s responsible. Then, the instant the attacker is identified, he becomes yet another rhetorical club in perhaps one of the most divisive debates in modern American politics. Who else is to blame?

When the violence comes from the right, is it Donald Trump? Is it Fox News? When the violence comes from the left, is it Maxine Waters? Is it Bernie Sanders?

On and on it goes. At the core of the argument is a contention—your rhetoric is motivating your radicals to do terrible things. Each act of violence from your side reaffirms the systematic moral deficiency of your position. Moreover, each act of violence from your side has many fathers—those whose rhetoric makes them “complicit” or creates a “climate” that breeds violence. On the other hand, each act of violence from my side is an aberration—an incident so isolated that it’s outrageous to pin any responsibility for it to any idea or any important person. My rage doesn’t inspire violence. My rage is righteous.

But what’s the truth of the matter? When does political rhetoric cause violence? When can we hold politicians (or movements) morally responsible for their words in the aftermath of threats or tragedies? And is there a risk in making that connection too broadly—can the argument for complicity breed its own excessive response?

These questions are difficult to answer in part because of some good news. It’s truly hard to find prominent politicians, pundits, or activists who explicitly advocate the use of violence. Politicians and activists in the contemporary United States don’t argue for bombings, shootings, and riots. This has not always been the case.

In spite of the fact that we live in a land awash in angry rhetoric and led by a man who sometimes seems to delight in inflicting suffering on his enemies, we still enjoy relative political peace—certainly as compared to other contentious times in American history. There is no “bleeding Kansas” in contemporary America, and we are nowhere close to the staggering level of political violence of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when groups like the Weather Underground attempted, in the words of the historian Jeremy Varon, to “bomb old ideologies out of existence.”

It’s hard for modern Americans to comprehend the scale of that era’s violence. From January 1969 to October 1970, according to The New York Times, there were 370 bombings in the state of New York alone. Between January 1969 and April 1970, “the United States sustained 4,330 bombings—3,355 of them incendiary, 975 explosive—resulting in 43 deaths and $21.8 million in property damage.”

Why the difference between then and now? Well, for one thing, the political stakes are lower. In the run-up to the Civil War, America was confronting its original sin, slavery. In the ‘60s it was confronting slavery’s dark legacy—through the civil-rights movement—while fighting over American involvement in the bloody and contentious Vietnam war.

The words matched the moment. Those two periods, a century apart, were not the age of the dog-whistle. The calls for violence were unmistakable, direct, and relentless.

Those were periods of actual incitement—when people engaged in speech that was “directed to inciting and producing imminent lawless action” and were also “likely to incite or produce such action,” meeting the Supreme Court’s Brandenburg test. But true incitement (think of the man at the head of the pitchfork brigade leading the charge on City Hall) is unlawful. Some activists—including prominent figures in the violent edges of the civil-rights and anti-war movements—found ways to engage in constitutionally protected speech that specifically advocated violent acts. In other words, they intentionally and unmistakably tried to persuade people to bomb or loot or kill without breaking the law.

Today, the situation is different. While political anger abounds, it is rare to hear politicians or other public figures openly advocating actual political violence. Trump encouraged direct physical attacks in a number of campaign rallies, but even he has lately pulled back from that brink. Politicians and activists call for votes, for protests, and sometimes even for incivility, but they do not call for violence.

So, instead of debating whether activists, politicians, and other public figures are inciting violence or persuading people to breach the peace, we’re debating whether hateful or angry words inspire violent acts, and if they do, whether the politician or public figure bears at least part of the blame when evil people do terrible things.

We should be very careful before we say yes.

In a passionate and eloquent piece written the day after the Pittsburgh shooting, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer argued that Trump shared at least some blame for the massacre. Trump’s rhetoric about the migrant caravan marching through Mexico, including implying the presence of possible terrorists or gang members, ignited public fear. His allies in the media fanned the flames. All of this is true. Serwer says “the shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies.”

The argument has appeal. After all, if an actual “invasion” by criminals and terrorists looms, don’t you use force to repel it? Isn’t that the logic that follows from that rhetoric?

But angry rhetoric is quite common in politics. And politics often deals with high-stakes controversies—even if they don’t reach to the magnitude of slavery or Jim Crow. In 2017, for example, during the heat of arguments about Obamacare repeal, Bernie Sanders said that “thousands of Americans would die” if the GOP health-care bill became law. Then one man attempted to massacre a group of GOP lawmakers.

Sanders certainly made an alarming claim, but I utterly reject the notion that Bernie Sanders bears even a single scintilla of moral responsibility for the shooting. No person possessing even a modicum of reasonable moral thought would think that Sanders was calling for a massacre of GOP members of Congress. He was trying to motivate his followers to express political opposition to a specific GOP bill by pointing to a projection of its consequences.

But that same logic should apply to Trump. When the president used absurd rhetoric to oppose the caravan (and yes, I believe his rhetoric has been absurd) no person possessing even a modicum of reasonable moral thought would believe that he was calling for the execution for Jewish worshippers in an American synagogue. He’s trying to motivate people to vote, not kill.

So even if one could argue that Trump’s rhetoric in some way inspired an evil man (a claim made harder to argue in the Pittsburgh case given the shooter’s obvious loathing for Trump), it’s a stretch to argue that Trump bears any moral responsibility for that inspiration. The shooter not only hated Trump, he targeted a group of people Trump has never targeted before. (Critics have accused Trump of employing tropes associated with anti-Semitism, or of failing to condemn anti-Semites, but never of using language explicitly targeting Jews, much less calling for violence against them. After all, his daughter, brother-in-law, and three of his grandchildren are Jewish. It’s hard to argue that Trump is seeking to make their lives more perilous.)

But is there any instance where a politician may bear at least some moral responsibility for inspiring violence, even when he’s never explicitly called for it? Yes, there is. The argument about Trump and Pittsburgh has obscured a different argument—about Trump and the string of mail bombs that dominated the news until the horrific synagogue massacre.

The bomber was a Trump superfan who targeted the specific political enemies who Trump had targeted with his own extreme rhetoric. (After the publication of this story, I learned from the FBI that he had searched for my home address.) Moreover, the existence of a vicious and intimidating Trump superfan community was well-known before the attempted bombings, and parts of that community were intentionally nurtured during the Trump campaign by important Trump officials, like Steve Bannon.

So when the Trump team knows about his radical supporters and knows they target critics for campaigns of intimidation and threats—yet Trump never dials back his rhetoric—do they bear any moral responsibility when one of those supporters actually moves from threats to attempted murder?

In that unusual case, I think so. But notice the differences. The bomber, a Trump supporter—part of a well-known radical Trumpist community—attacked specific Trump targets. The Pittsburgh shooter, a Trump hater, attacked people who were not Trump targets. To argue that Trump bears responsibility in the latter case is to extend moral culpability for independent evil acts far beyond the breaking point.

And consider where the logic of holding Trump complicit in the Pittsburgh massacre ultimately leads. What would a disturbed person do with the idea that Trump or his allies bear responsibility for mass murder? Especially if he knows that they will avoid any meaningful legal or political accountability?

Those who argue that Trump and his allies are complicit in murder are trying to motivate people to oppose Trump and his allies peacefully and lawfully. But they also know that there are disturbed people who’ve launched their own attacks and threats against GOP officials and other conservative targets. If Trump and Fox should keep in mind the presence of radicalized and angry allies, shouldn’t their critics do the same? If someone tries to harm Trump or any of his allies, do their most angry critics share any blame?

Last week, a group of protesters trespassed onto Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s property, banged on his door, chanted in the street outside his house, and vandalized his driveway. His wife was home alone and was terrified that they might face a home invasion. She called the police. While there were no violent acts that night, lest anyone think the intent was benign, in a deleted tweet the protesters declared their intention to “remind you [Carlson] that you are not safe either.”

Did these protesters follow the logic of critics of Fox News? Those critics never criticized Carlson’s wife. They never sanctioned threats. But they have expressed very deep anger against Fox. For example, in the days after the violence in Charlottesville, Bill Maher said that Fox was “the Jurassic Park that took the DNA of the Nazis and reanimated it.” After the Pittsburgh massacre, Robert Reich wrote that “this lineage of cause and effect begins with Trump and his Fox News propaganda machine.”

The knowledge that there are disturbed minds agitated by volatile times should cause us all to take great care before we allocate to any politician or pundit responsibility for violent acts. The cure for bad speech isn’t to amplify the bad speech, exaggerate its effect, and assign the worst of motives not just to the speaker but also his allies and supporters. The answer to bad speech is better speech—including rebutting fear with reason, applying selective anger when the facts are clear, and always responding with a degree of proportion and historical perspective.

In short, if a politician or public figure actually incites violence, we should prosecute him. If he tries to persuade people to engage in acts of violence, we should reject him. If he engages in irresponsible or extreme speech, we should rebut him. To go farther—outside the most unusual circumstances, to hold anyone morally responsible for acts he did not condone, encourage, or seek—is to risk becoming what we hate, the person who could inspire the very extremism we so rightly condemn.