After the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016, I spoke to someone who was certain that he would never serve a day—because he would be assassinated prior to his Inauguration.
Mr. Trump did, as we now know, serve his full term in office, but it is all but impossible to forget the wild and uncontrolled rage that dogged his entire administration. Whether it was the unending Russiagate inquiry, which turned out to be based on a complete fabrication concocted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, or two separate efforts to impeach him, neither of which was close to successful, we were exposed to a level of political and personal vitriol that stunned some, satisfied others, and opened the national floodgates of vicious personal attacks, unending media harassment, and bizarre conspiratorial thinking that has served to unhinge our discourse from both reality and respectability.
Anything goes today, and it is not unreasonable to worry that this will get someone killed—very soon.
A pro-abortion activist group recently offered immediate Venmo cash rewards—bounties, really—to anyone who reported the public locations of any of the six Supreme Court Justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and return regulation of abortion to the fifty states; this was an attempt at intimidation that seemed very much like an invitation to confrontation and violence. Moreover, federal officials seemed blithely unconcerned with mobs of protestors showing up at the homes of these same six justices, and the official and media condemnations of someone being arrested near Justice Kavanaugh’s home with the stated intention of murdering him were muted and unconvincing—to say the least. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that many were frankly cheering for such an attack, which speaks to a degree of bloodthirstiness that should worry us all.
This past week a man leapt onto a stage where New York Republican Gubernatorial candidate, and sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee Zeldin was giving a speech and tried to stab him. Fortunately, Representative Zeldin escaped unharmed and was able to finish his speech, but his attacker was shortly thereafter released from custody on his own recognizance, a consequence of the incredibly lax bail laws in New York State that Mr. Zeldin wants to overturn if he is elected in November. Although his attacker was re-arrested two days later on federal charges (while claiming he did not know who he was attacking), there is still another disturbing aspect to this disgraceful episode.
We are, sad to say, very far beyond the time when candidates and elected officials routinely prefaced their rebuttals by saying they regretted to disagree with their esteemed opponent. The almost courtly manner with which political differences were once discussed with a minimum of personal rancor is an impossibility in our society today, where nasty cracks and one-liners are the norm. Any line of reasoning that exceeds five seconds is apt to not fit comfortably in a tweet, so we are today accustomed to dialogues that display the intellectual attention spans of puppies, which means we all suffer from the half-baked logic that passes for discussion in America today.
It is, therefore, no surprise that New York Governor Hochul’s office, while her electoral opponent was barnstorming the state for votes, decided to email a press release that read in part that “Lee and his entourage of extremists kick off the statewide ‘MAGA Republican’ Bus Tour, which will make stops across the state peddling dangerous lies, misinformation, and his far-right agenda. At stops during the tour, Zeldin will be joined by top anti-abortion advocates, NRA enthusiasts, and a cast of extremist groups.”
This sort of language is, as we know, nothing out of the ordinary in contemporary American politics, and former President Trump was himself renowned for his pugnacious rhetoric and nasty tweets. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are innocent in this regard, but inflammatory rhetoric has become so normalized today as regards even the least fraught issues in American life that it is little surprise that violent thought and action is becoming more depressingly typical.
Few remember, but many more should, that only five years ago Republican U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot in what was characterized as an act of “domestic terrorism” by a left-wing activist who was motivated by the violent rhetoric directed against President Trump and his policies. Representative Scalise recovered from his wounds, but the dangers and consequences of hateful speech have clearly not been fully understood by our news media and politicians today.
Blaming one another for this problem does not solve it, and we desperately need to rediscover the important difference between saying our opponents are wrong and our opponents are evil. If we do not, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for the ugly and destructive outcomes.
We all have a role in making this change in our nation’s rhetorical style, and it starts with those posts, articles, and commentaries that we choose to share with others.
Unfortunately, the long-term trend toward becoming ruder, cruder, and lewder in language and presentation in order to attract readers and listeners has migrated from our entertainment culture to our social and political discourse with increasingly dismal results—but it does attract our attention. We are wired to be aroused by shouts rather than whispers, so the more shocking the speech, the more likely it is to grab our attention. However, for our own good, the good of our communities, and the good of our divided nation, we must ignore the carnival barkers and crazies who compete to find the language needed to put us at one another’s throats.
There are still reasonable people in our nation—quite a few of them, in fact—and we must do our part to push their voices and ideas to the forefront of our national dialogue by controlling our natural urge to reward the most hateful and divisive with our reposts and dollars.
Better yet, don’t let your beliefs be dictated by the third-tier celebrities and fear mongers who are converting your clicks into cash. Find your own trusted circle of friends, family, co-workers, and members of your faith community to help you think through those matters that most concern you. Listen quietly and respectfully to those whose values and ideas differ from your own and, before you respond, take a day or two to ponder upon what you have heard. Thinking takes time, and the impulse to respond immediately is perhaps the most damaging aspect of our dysfunctional media-driven cultural norms.
In addition, make very plain with your words and actions that you have no respect for those who substitute insult for argument, for this mode of speech is the greatest threat to the health of our democracy today. To have strongly held opinions based on a foundation of well-considered personal values is both good and proper; to automatically attack those who think differently is a sign of both immaturity and a lack of respect for the feelings of others. In a nation as diverse as our own, we must be willing to tolerate the idea that we will not always agree—and our beliefs may not hold sway over others.
Most important, however, we must abandon our insistence that our individuality grants us rights that supersede our responsibilities for basic courtesy toward others, for this path leads inevitably to stripping others of their humanity in order to justify our own intolerant behavior. When this occurs, the next frighteningly easy step is one that decides violent behavior is just as acceptable as violent words—and is even necessary. This is the same sick mindset that criminals use to avoid thinking about the pain they cause to others, and extended to a broader societal or political level, it becomes the motivation for the worst among us to pick up a gun or a knife in order to hurt those whom we deem too evil to live.
We can do better, and we must. To continue carrying on like snotty teenagers on a street corner is a disgrace to both ourselves and our great nation, so it is time to grow up.