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24 October 2018

Bombs sent to CNN, Obama, Clinton and Soros show how violent rhetoric sparks real violence

The violent tone of political discourse in the US can have deadly, real-life consequences - and the president is one of the worst perpetrators.

By Sophie McBain

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, or attempted attacks, false alarms and other misinformation is common, but by lunchtime in New York on Wednesday this much was clear: suspected pipe bombs were posted to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Manhattan offices of CNN. The package posted to CNN was addressed to the former CIA chief John Brennan, and it forced news anchors to stop mid-broadcast to evacuate the building. The explosive devices are reported to be similar to the one sent to the billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros on Tuesday.

The pattern that is emerging is that prominent liberals have been targeted. Obama, Clinton, CNN and Soros are deeply unpopular in far-right circles and have been demonized by Trump and his supporters. At Trump rallies his supporters regularly chant “CNN sucks” and “lock her up!” of Hillary Clinton. Trump frequently attacks Obama’s presidency and was a leading proponent of the conspiracy that America’s first black president was not American. Soros is often the target of anti-Semitic attacks from the far-right and was recently the subject of a conspiracy theory that he was funding the so-called caravan of migrants headed towards the US border.

We don’t know whether the attacks were carried out by one person or by a group or people, and even when the perpetrator or perpetrators are caught we may never fully understand what pushes a person into violence. What we do know is that there is a demonstrable link between violent political language and political violence. We also know that in the run-up to the midterms, Trump, who is hardly a model of restraint at the best of times, has been indulging his worst instincts while on stage at rallies, working his base. At a rally in Montana last week, for example, he praised a congressman for assaulting a Guardian reporter.

As Paul Waldman points out in the Washington Post, Trump often seems to endorse violence as a proportionate response to political opposition:

When confronted with protesters, he regularly talks about the violent retribution he would like to visit against them. Some samples: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” “Part of the problem, and part of the reason it takes so long, is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?”

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There is simply no question that Trump has repeatedly sent the message to his supporters that politically motivated violence is not a violation of proper behavior and ideals, but instead is perfectly appropriate if you detest the person against whom you’re committing that violence.

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Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK attempted to ascertain whether Trump’s violent language translates into real-life violence, and they found it did. Their study showed that shortly after Trump tweets disparaging comments against Muslims and Latinos, hate crimes against the groups increase. The effect was more pronounced in areas with a higher proportion of Twitter users.

It’s hard to prove causation, but it does seem that for certain individuals, Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants, journalists, liberals, women and other groups is inspiring, or emboldening, or gives them an excuse to act on their worst desires. Only yesterday, for example, a man arrested for groping a woman on an airplane gave as an excuse that Trump “says it’s OK to grab women by their private parts”.

Trump is one of the worst offenders, but violent rhetoric is becoming common throughout American politics – and we know how easily this can spill into real violence. Just last week, a naval vet from Utah was charged with sending letters containing a toxic substance to Trump and other senior administration officials.

In a piece for New York magazine’s Intelligencer, Ed Kilgore criticizes what he calls “politics as warfare” and notes how militaristic language has taken over political discourse:

Resources are being “deployed” to “battleground states” where key races are “targeted” for “strategic strikes” via attack ads “launched” by political field marshals in some distant headquarters. Guerrilla warfare is undertaken by “dark ops” specialists utilizing social media and whisper networks. More than ever, opponents are enemies, and partisans are constantly warned against compromise and enjoined to be tough and merciless

Blaming inflammatory, uncompromising language from both the left and right, Kilgore warns that “if political rhetoric in this country continues on its current trajectory, people are going to start getting killed, and then inevitably, the violence will escalate.”

I am not sure Trump is even capable of taking responsibility for his language and understanding that when he demonizes others, when he praises violence, he will inspire real acts of violence.

But perhaps today’s events can serve as a sobering reminder to others that although the stakes have rarely been higher in American politics, the immense privilege of living in an open democratic society is that we have peaceful, rule-based ways of resolving conflict, and we should do all we can to keep things that way.