We all know that over-the-top rhetoric can have real consequences. Let’s start acting like it.
Despite recently hand-wringing from both the right and left, the truth is that American politics have been devoid of civility and decency since Ronald Reagan called the White House home. Democrats labeling Republicans “Nazis” and Republicans calling Democrats “anti-American” did not originate in 2016.
What is different in 2018 is the speed with which those insults can be disseminated to supporters and opponents alike, and used to push the narrative that the media and/or one’s political opponents want to actually harm some segment of Americans. While some calls for “civility” are self-serving, one-sided and likely disingenuous, the truth that is staring each and every one of us in the face is that the over-the-top rhetoric is achieving its ignoble purpose: To further stoke anger and division among many on the left and the right.
And in the midst of a nationwide debate about the paucity of mental health services for those in crisis, it’s clear after Thursday’s Capital Gazette shooting that there is at least an unspoken consensus that this rhetoric continuously risks pushing impressionable people to undertake dangerous and even deadly actions against those their political interlocutors have deemed enemies.
We live in an era where the pen is truly mightier than the sword, and words are weapons. They have the power to influence entire swaths of people and, when employed in the political realm, can inspire us to soar to great heights or merely engender fear among Americans. Sadly, over the last few years, we seem to have experienced far more of the latter than the former. Our leaders and people in positions of influence either fail to realize — or, even worse, do not care that what they say has the power to inspire troubled individuals in addition to their everyday supporters.
Take, for instance, “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory popular among far-right factions (and the occasional Trump appointee) and promoted by well known alt-right figures, that suggested that an innocent Washington, D.C. pizza parlor was a hub of a child sex trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and other top Democrats. In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, drove from his home in North Carolina to the pizzeria armed with three guns, including a rifle. Seeking to “self-investigate,” as Welch told the police, he entered the restaurant and opened fire. At least in that case thankfully, there were no injuries. (Welch was convicted on federal gun charges and sentenced to four years in prison.)
Congressional Republicans targeted by liberal Bernie Sanders supporter James Hodgkinson were less lucky: He wounded four people during an attempted massacre in the midst of their softball game practice and was killed by law enforcement officers. After the attack, it emerged that he had bought into liberal rhetoric that Republicans were “traitors” and the “Taliban of the USA,” and actively made sure that the players were Republicans before opening fire.
This kind of rhetoric that has become all too common in American politics, especially online; we’re no longer debating policy but the morality and motives of the policymakers. We need to stop for a moment of reflection in America, and to step back from our current personalized opposition to and fear of one another.
According to a June 2016 Pew Research Center study, 62 percent of Republicans who are highly-engaged in politics are afraid of Democrats, and 70 percent of highly-engaged Democrats fear Republicans. This attitude among politically active partisans is the result of a constant strategy from both sides of the aisle to make their voting bases feel that the opposing party is a threat to them and their way of life.
Look at the fight over Obamacare: When Republicans were fighting passage of the bill in 2010, many claimed that, were it implemented, there would be government-run “death panels” that would kill grandma, and, the GOP base bought the argument. Then in May 2017, both Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and then Governor Terry McAuliffe, D-Va., came out against the House GOP’s bill to repeal and replace Obamacare by saying that “people will die.” The language was not lost on their supporters, who quickly adopted it in their own arguments.
If someone truly believes — however improbable, however driven by a mental health crisis — that a piece of legislation will quite literally kill their grandparents or millions of unsuspecting Americans, particularly because people they trust made that hyperbolic claim, it’s not hard to see how someone already on the edge might be driven to act.
The presidency has not been spared from the permeation of this reckless tone and rhetoric. President Trump has frequently referred to reporters as“the enemy of the people.” At his rallies, he often singles out the press for insult and humiliation, and always doing so with a smile on his face. In an interview last week, Trump took his objurgation of the press to new lows, bemoaning their coverage of his summit with Kim Jong Un was “almost treasonous.” It was a stunning, but unsurprising escalation of dangerous bombast.
It has, thus, unsurprisingly become a common spectacle for reporters covering his rallies to be harassed by rally attendees, accused of hating America or of being outright traitors.
The rhetoric about those with whom we disagree being traitors is not confined to the right: For instance, Cynthia Nixon, a Democratic candidate for governor of New York, recently labeled the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement “a terrorist organization” for its work implementing the president’s immigration agenda. Whether one agrees with that agenda or not, it’s hard to see how her rhetoric about ICE is any more helpful that Trump’s rhetoric about the whole of the media.
One would think that our politicians, whose jobs are often defined more by their words than any laws that they pass, would best understand how recklessness with their words can have severe consequences. Yet, the caustic rhetoric has not abated: “Enemies” are to be confronted.
But there has to be a way to believe that a policy is bad or even immoral without someone else’s support for that policy warranting extreme and vitriolic rhetoric.
Sadly, in all likelihood, neither our leaders, our neighbors or our social media trolls will change their tones, let alone their viciousness toward those with whom they differ politically (or the media that they believe cover everything unfairly). But our country, both right and left, will be the worse for our demonization of one another, as we will only suffer a greater fracture in an already divided era.
It’s not about “civility.” It’s about recognizing that the people with whom we disagree are also human and deserving of being treated with decency.
This column was originally published in NBC News Think on June 30, 2018.