Over the first five months of Donald Trump’s presidency, Bernie Sanders and his political allies told the public on a near-daily basis that congressional Republicans were trying to pass a bill that would kill more than 43,000 Americans each year.
Then, a Bernie Sanders supporter tried to kill a few dozen congressional Republicans.
Over the course of his presidency, Donald Trump and his political allies have told the public, among other things, that the Democratic Party is trying to steal elections by paying illegal immigrants to vote; that Democratic donor George Soros paid fake protesters to ruin a Republican Supreme Court justice’s life; that Democrats are “plotting a coup” that would permanently bar the GOP from power; and that mainstream news outlets like CNN make up stories and sources for the sole purpose of damaging the president, and dividing the public, and are, therefore, the “enemy of the American people.”
Then, a Donald Trump supporter (apparently) tried to kill George Soros, a wide swath of the Democratic Party’s elected leadership, and CNN employees with explosives.
Now, some liberal pundits are casting the latter development as an indictment of the Republican president’s irresponsible rhetoric — and imploring conservatives to forswear their incendiary invective, so as to avoid inspiring future assassination attempts.
Conservative commentators, for their part, are decrying their critics’ hypocrisy — and reminding them of that (botched) terrorist attack that their own words inspired at a congressional baseball practice last June.
And, from one angle, they appear to have a point: If liberals are saying that politicians should not use any rhetoric that a psychopath could plausibly interpret as a rationale for violence, then, by that logic, Democrats surely should not have claimed that Republicans wanted to pass legislation that would kill (exponentially) more Americans than 9/11 did.
But I don’t think that is the argument that (most) liberals are making — or, at least, it isn’t the argument that they should be making.
Ben Shapiro is right that it is not reasonable to expect politicians to avoid saying anything that might inspire a single person, in a nation of more than 300 million, to act out violently. To establish such an expectation would be to prohibit elected officials from communicating the actual stakes of political disputes — which, in many cases, really are matters of life and death. Thus, the problem with Trump’s rhetorical attacks on Democrats and the media is not that they are incendiary, divisive, or liable to inspire violence; the problem is that they are needlessly so — because they have no factual basis.
When Bernie Sanders claimed that Paul Ryan’s health-care bill would cost tens of thousands of Americans their lives, he was basing his allegation on:
1. A Congressional Budget Office projection showing the bill was likely to increase the number of Americans without health insurance by more than 20 million over the coming decade.
2. Peer-reviewed studies that suggest when Americans do not have health insurance, they become more likely to die from curable ailments.
Sanders’s claim was divisive, offensive to many, and may well have helped to inspire an act of terrorism. But part of his responsibility as a senator is to alert the public to the likely consequences of laws that Congress is trying to pass. One can dispute the methodology of the studies that Sanders was relying on. But the senator cited his sources, and Politifact rated his claim as “well-supported.”
None of this alleviates Sanders of a responsibility to condemn political violence when it is carried out in his name. But it does justify his decision to publicly make a claim that could plausibly inspire a violent act.
When Donald Trump claimed that the Democratic Party was trying to rig elections by encouraging undocumented immigrants to vote; or that the women protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination were paid to do so by George Soros; or that Democrats might be paying violent Central American migrants to sneak across the U.S. border, he was basing his claim on nothing — or, at least, on no specific source he was willing to cite.
If Trump had evidence to support these claims, he would be perfectly justified in making them, no matter how someone like Cesar Sayoc Jr. might interpret them. But he had no evidence. And there is no defensible reason for the president of the United States to baselessly accuse his political opponents of subverting the democratic process. And the fact that Trump’s allegation was liable to inspire extremism of some kind — as it suggests that those who wish to remove the Democratic Party from power can no longer do so by defeating its candidates in free and fair elections — makes his decision to level it even more irresponsible, and thus, worthy of condemnation.
And then, of course, there is the small matter of Trump’s explicit praise of political violence. When the president applauded his supporters for punching protesters, encouraged police to brutalize criminal suspects, and praised a sitting congressman for body-slamming a reporter, he was directly encouraging violence for no purpose other than (at best) his audience’s amusement.
On a day when federal authorities arrest an alleged attempted assassin — who, by all appearances, took the president’s most incendiary words both literally and seriously — it is perfectly appropriate to remind Republicans of the indefensible discourse that they have been abetting (if not personally engaging in), and to implore the president to avoid praising political violence, or making incendiary, unsubstantiated allegations about his political opponents, because doing so poses risks to public safety, while fulfilling no civic function.