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?
Peter Beinart: Trump shut programs to counter violent extremism.
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.)