As prominent Democrats find themselves on the receiving end of explosive packages, Mari Uyehara chronicles Trump’s calls for violence against his perceived enemies.
On Monday, a pipe bomb, most likely hand-delivered, was discovered in the mailbox of philanthropist George Soros’s New York suburban home. The culprit was unknown, but it was just the start. Yesterday, as CNN anchors were reporting live on explosive devices addressed to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama, a fire alarm went off in the background. The anchors hurried off the air as the CNN offices in New York City were evacuated due to a suspicious package.
Soon reports came that more suspicious packages were also sent to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), former FBI director John Brennan, and former attorney general Eric Holder. The return address on the package to Holder, as it was for others, was for former DNC chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fl.). And because the delivery address on the Holder package was incorrect, it was sent to Wasserman Schultz’s Florida office, prompting an evacuation. Police later intercepted similar packages addressed to Former Vice President Joe Biden and outspoken Trump critic Robert De Niro; the San Diego building housing Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-Calif.) headquarters was also evacuated because of suspicious packages. Altogether, there were three evacuations and 11 bomb scares in the span of a couple days. We don’t yet know who sent the explosive devices or what his or her motivations were, but we do know who the intended victims are and their connection to one another is no mystery.
The targets—predominantly the former and current Democratic leadership—were the very same ones at which Trump has aimed his vitriol since his political debut in 2008: Obama, the subject of the racist birther conspiracy theory, and Soros, the subject of an anti-Semitic one; Waters denigrated as having “extraordinarily low IQ”; “loudmouth partisan hack” Brennan; “enemy of the people” CNN; and Wasserman Schultz, whom he accused of “corruption.” Even in light of botched explosives, there was no sign that Trump supporters would abate in their parroting of this invective bombast. On the very same day an explosive device was sent to Clinton, the MAGA mob at a Mosinee, Wisconsin rally howled “LOCK HER UP! LOCK HER UP!” Nevermind that the original offense—Clinton’s potentially exposing sensitive information via e-mail—was the one Trump was guilty of, as reported that day in The New York Times, by making calls on smartphones, despite aides warning that they were not secure from Chinese spying.
As soon as reports on the bombs came out, the white knights of false equivalency galloped to the scene, brandishing swords of both-siderism. Former Vice President Joe Biden, offered vague and meaningless pablum: “This country has to come together. This division, this hatred, this ugliness has to end.” Chuck Schumer took a step further, implicating liberals: “Make no mistake: Despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum—not just by one side.” Meghan McCain equated the explosive devices with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell getting heckled at restaurants. The National Review’s David French asked if “there was any momentum for toning things down,”citing this week’s bomb scares, as well a recent ricin threat to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and the 2017 shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). “We are still blessed with relative political peace. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves. That can change,” French later wrote. “The late Sixties and early Seventies saw a surge of political violence on a scale that would shock the conscience of Americans today.”
Herein was the issue: flattening political discourse to nothingness, as if the civil rights activists struggling for voting rights and white supremacists agitating to suppress them were on equal sides of the same coin. In the ’60s and ’70s, as today, it was fringe activists, like the Weather Underground, who engaged in political violence on the left, while on the right, the political violence, including police beatings and mob murders of non-violent civil rights activists, was openly sanctioned by establishment political figures. Sure, a former Bernie Sanders volunteer, as Press Secretary Sarah Sanders cited in defense of Trump, shot up a GOP baseball game, but Bernie, unlike Trump, doesn’t offer incitements of violence as a regular feature of his speeches. There are, of course, loonies and extremists of all political stripes, but only the leaders of one political party have consistently encouraged extrajudicial violence, viciously attacked the free press, and advocated for the imprisonment of political opponents: the GOP.
Trump has led the way, explicitly promoting violence and assailing the press. He has repeatedly struck an offensive on facts and reporting, sliming the media as “fake news,” “dishonest,” and “a real problem in this country,” attacking CNN, in particular, as the “enemy of the people.” At his rallies, journalists have become a punching bag, with hecklers screaming insults and obscenities in their faces. There is simply nothing bearing any resemblance to this attack on the First Amendment, nevermind an equivalence, coming from the Democratic leadership. This morning, unsurprisingly reversing on his brief call for unity, Trump tweeted out a victim-blaming and threatening assessment of the attempted bombings: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
For many years now, Trump has condoned extrajudicial violence in no uncertain terms. He has repeatedly expressed admiration for murderous dictators, particularly those who dispose of adversarial journalists. Last week, at a Montana rally, he praised Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who assaulted a reporter last spring, as “my kind of guy” specifically because he had “body-slammed a reporter.” Gianforte was never censured by his Republican colleagues for physically attacking a journalist. By contrast, Democratic leaders, like Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and former Obama advisor David Axelrod have gone out of their way to scold liberal protest—the nonviolent exercise of free speech—at restaurants.
On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump leaned heavily on violent fantasy, urging supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to “knock the crap out of” protestors, promising to pay their legal fees; telling a Las Vegas crowd “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you” of another protestor; and directing security at a winter Vermont rally to confiscate protestors’ coats before kicking them out. The crowd ate it up. Trump security choked a Time photographer in Virginia rally. And in North Carolina, a Trump supporter punched a Black Lives Matter protester at a rally, and another protester was beaten by a mob in Alabama. Of the latter attack, Trump complained on Fox News that the protester “was so obnoxious and so loud” that “maybe he should have been roughed up.”
While Trump has unequivocally called for actual violence, his administration has lashed out at non-violent political protest, like a 26-seat farm-to-table restaurant refusing service to Press Secretary Sanders, denouncing, along with the pearl-clutching political class, so-called “leftist mobs” for exercising political speech. After Rep. Waters encouraged progressives to confront “anybody from that Cabinet” in public to “push back” on the policy of family separation at the border, Trump twisted it into an us-versus-them attack, issuing a warning: “she has just called for harm to supporters…of the Make America Great Again movement. Be careful what you wish for Max.” Of Kavanaugh’s critics, he said “these people are evil.” While the president cares little for policy, wavering back and forth on issues, one of the few consistencies in his political ideology is that it is premised on the debasement and dehumanization of the other.
The two hallmark chants of Trump rallies—”build a wall” and “lock her up”—bonded the red-hat-wearing MAGA supporters together in authoritarian bloodthirst of jailing and dehumanizing one’s political opponents. Instead of the typical messages of uplift and unity, the fervor is built on division, as supporters often wear T-shirts with slogans that broadcast malice: Hillary for Prison, Trump That Bitch, Fuck Your Feelings, She’s a Cunt. Trump, of course, launched his political candidacy on distrust of non-whites and vile old stereotypes, particularly the racist birther conspiracy theory, which posited that Obama was a foreigner born, not in Hawaii, but in Kenya, and that the constitutional scholar was somehow too lazy and stupid to get into Harvard and Columbia.
After anti-racism protester Heather Heyer was killed by Neo-Nazi at the white supremacist Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA, Trump, who has been endorsed by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, said there “were very fine people, on both sides.” He has not been alone among establishment Republicans in leveraging this kind of rhetoric. A few weeks ago, the Metropolitan Republican club hosted Gavin McInnes, leader of the violent white nationalist gang, the Proud Boys, for a reenactment of the murder of Inejiro Asanuma, leader of the Japanese Socialist Party, with a fake Japanese sword. Afterwards, the Proud Boys brutally beat protestors outside, one whom shouted, “I had one of their heads and I was just smashing it into the pavement…He’s a fucking foreigner!” Roger Stone, former Richard Nixon advisor and Trump supporter, has enlisted the Proud Boys as an amateur security detail. While the left fringe chatters about punching Nazis, no official Democratic groups or major figures would be caught dead hosting Antifa. Yet increasingly, Republicans have taken up Trump’s rhetoric themselves.
At the Wisconsin rally last night, it was Senate candidate Leah Vukmir who raised Clinton’s name and then beamed at the crowd as they screamed “LOCK HER UP!” At a Houston rally for Ted Cruz, when an audience member shouted, “lock him up,” in reference to his opponent Beto O’Rourke, Cruz replied, “Well, you know, there’s a double-occupancy cell with Clinton.” Just two days after a bomb was left in Soros’s mailbox, the House Republicans debuted a new anti-Soros advertisement painting him as a shadowy figure behind Democratic Minnesota House candidate Dan Feehan. On the very day CNN was evacuated, an email blast went out under Lara Trump’s name, saying “it’s time for us to give the media another wake-up call from the American people,” along with a “media accountability survey.” Brad Parscale, the 2020 Trump campaign manager, apologized, noting that it was a pre-programed message, but the fact remained that the campaign saw vilifying the press as an effective tactic for rallying its base. This morning, Newt Gingrich, who pioneered this ugly zero-sum partisan warfare on the right, said that the media “earned” being called “the enemy of the people.”
Trump’s vilification of the mainstream press is largely tactical. In CBS’s Lesley Stahl’s retelling, he told her: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” Conspiratorial paranoia, like Alex Jones calling the Sandy Hook shooting a hoax, has bled from the fringe to the mainstream, in part because of Trump’s destabilizing effect on much of the conservative base and media. In the wake of the news reports about this week’s bombs, a long list of prominent Trump supporters suggested it was a false flag, including: Ann Coulter, actor James Woods, David Horowitz, and many more. “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” Rush Limbaugh claimed on his radio show, despite a long history of right-wing violence, including Jim David Adkissen, who shot nine people, killing two, at the Knoxville Universalist Church, in 2008, because “I hate the damned left-wing liberals.”
“I’m going to go ahead and state that there is 0 percent chance that these ‘suspicious packages’ were sent out by conservatives,” Candace Owens, the communications director for conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, wrote in a since deleted tweet that went viral: “The only thing ‘suspicious’ about these packages, is their timing. Caravans, fake bomb threats—these leftists are going ALL OUT for midterms.” Fox News host Lou Dobbs tweeted: “Fake News Fake Bombs Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery? #MAGA #AmericaFirst #Dobbs.” And conservative pundit Frank Gaffney, a friend of national security advisor John Bolton, was similarly doubtful. “None of the leftists ostensibly targeted for pipe-bombs were actually at serious risk, since security details would be screening their mail,” tweeted Gaffney, who apparently doesn’t think the lives of postal carriers and service workers are worth a damn. “So let’s determine not only who is responsible for these bombs, but whether they were trying to deflect attention from the Left’s mobs.”
Last week, one of those members of the “fake news” media, dissident Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi Arabia consulate in Turkey by 15 men, including, it seems, associates close to the Saudi royal family. In 2016, Khashoggi was banned from writing in his own country, not over criticizing the Saudi government, but for his criticism of Trump. We do not know the exact circumstances of Khashoggi’s death, nor that of the explosive devices. But we do know this: Trump has explicitly called for violence against his political rivals, celebrated dictatorial brute force, and the named the press “enemy of the people.” To make blanket statements about rhetoric on all sides as somehow equal is to gravely misunderstand and misdiagnose the problem at a critically dangerous period in American history. There is only one party with a leader who has strategically and persistently wielded anti-democratic bloodthirst. And it is Trump’s party.
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