In recent months, President Trump has warned the public that Democrats “want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they are, to pour in and infest our Country, like MS-13” because liberals “view them as potential voters.” The nation’s most-watched cable news network has echoed this charge, reporting, in its prime-time hour, that Democrats are “plotting a coup” against the U.S. government, using illegal immigrants as their shock troops.
In recent weeks, Trump has told supporters that the caravan of Central American migrants currently headed towards the U.S. “didn’t just happen,” and that “the Democrats had something to do with it” — while also stipulating that there were known criminals and Middle Eastern terrorists in the caravan. Meanwhile, Republican congressman Matt Gaetz suggested that migrants were being paid — possibly by George Soros, who frequently donates to Democratic causes — to “storm the US border @ election time.” Conservative commentator Erick Erickson made the same point less equivocally, tweeting, “It is not a coincidence that this caravan to the south of us is happening 2 weeks before our federal elections.”
And pundits at just about every major right-wing outlet began describing the caravan as a literal invasion of the United States, with some explicitly arguing that the attempt by thousands of (disease-riddled) Central Americans to secure asylum in the United States should be regarded as “an act of war.”
Taken together, then, the president and his allies have been telling millions of Americans that the (Soros-funded) Democrats are orchestrating an invasion of the United States by violent Central American migrants, because, allegedly, the Democrats believe that doing so will help them steal the November 6 elections in the immediate term, and render Republicans incapable of reclaiming power through the democratic process in the long run.
On Saturday, a neo-Nazi who believed that Jews were orchestrating an invasion of the United States by violent Central Americans migrants — as part of a broader plan to render the white race incapable of reclaiming power in the U.S. — (allegedly) murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. One day earlier, authorities had arrested a virulently xenophobic Trump supporter who (allegedly) attempted to assassinate George Soros, and much of the Democratic Party’s leadership, with explosives.
Now, many liberals are arguing that the president bears some responsibility for these acts of political violence. Some (self-styled) conservative intellectuals have responded with exasperated umbrage.
A couple of the right’s complaints bear a striking resemblance to fair points. For example, it would be unreasonable to ask Republicans to avoid making any criticisms of George Soros’s interventions in U.S. politics that anti-Semites could plausibly interpret as a vindication of their ideology. Individuals who use their wealth to advance political causes are worthy subjects of scrutiny in any democratic society. In my view, there is evidence that Sheldon Adelson’s political spending has made American foreign policy more deferential to the interests of the Israeli government — and also, evidence that virulent anti-Semites would be happy to hear me say that. I do not believe that the latter fact should deter progressives from making the former argument.
It is also unreasonable 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 many political disputes — which, in some cases, really are matters of life and death. For much of 2017, Bernie Sanders 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. It isn’t hard to understand how a violent person might take the claim, “GOP lawmakers are about to do something that will kill exponentially more Americans than the 9/11 attacks” as a rationale for killing GOP lawmakers.
That said, these legitimate conservative objections to the most sweeping (and sloppy) liberal arguments are ultimately beside the point, because the primary problem with the Republican Party’s claims about the migrant caravan is not that they are evocative of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, or liable to inspire violence — but rather, that they are wildly dishonest, and thus, aid Nazi propagandists and increase the risk of political violence for no defensible purpose.
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 peer-reviewed studies, and thus, fulfilling his civic duty as a senator to highlight the likely consequences of pending legislation.
If the president had similarly credible evidence to support the allegation that George Soros and the Democratic Party are trying to steal the midterm elections by smuggling thousands of Central American migrants, Middle Eastern terrorists, and criminal gang members across the southern border, then it would be perfectly appropriate for Trump to alert the public to Team Blue’s nefarious plan — even if doing so was likely to foment neo-Nazi organizing, and increase the overall risk of political violence in the U.S.
But the president has no such evidence. And neither do Erick Erickson, Tucker Carlson, Matt Gaetz, or any other conservative who has spent the past two weeks promoting this narrative. Which is to say: The president and his allies have been baselessly telling their supporters that they can’t necessarily trust the official results of the upcoming midterm elections, because the opposition party is aiding and abetting an invasion of the United States, as part of a plot to wrest control of the government away from native-born Americans in the heartland.
This rhetoric would be vile, and worthy of bipartisan condemnation, even if Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers had never forced their names into our national consciousness. Democracy is impossible without the peaceful transfer of power — and maintaining the latter requires mass acceptance of the legitimacy of elections, and the right for politicians to compete in them regardless of their partisanships. Republican rhetoric about the caravan explicitly challenges the legitimacy of both of those things, by (baselessly) insinuating that Democrats are subverting election laws, and by aligning themselves with enemies if the United States.
Robert Bowers may have despised Donald Trump for supporting Israel and for allowing his daughter to marry a Jew. But he did share the president’s putative belief that a nefarious internal enemy was orchestrating an invasion of the United States by third-world migrants, and saw that as a justification for waging war on what he saw as the enemy within. Thus, Bowers’s attack is an indication that Trump’s narrative is not only mendacious and destructive to democratic norms, but also liable to amplify neo-Nazi messaging, and inspire violence against Democratic Party elites (who are, in Trump’s telling, the nefarious internal enemy operating puppet strings to draw migrants toward the border).
Given all of this, it is perfectly appropriate for Democrats to respond to the atrocity in Pittsburgh by calling on the Republican Party to cease its promotion of a paranoid fiction that closely resembles neo-Nazi propaganda. Conservatives who are more troubled by right-wing authoritarians than by liberal straw men will join in such calls; those who aren’t will decry Democrats for “using dead Jews as yet another way to attack Trump, ” as the reigning authoritarian-in-chief himself carries on blaming anti-Semitic violence on a news media conspiracy, and lambasting his political rivals for organizing an “invasion” of the United States.