Commentary Politics

Our Descent Into State-Sanctioned Violence

Jodi Jacobson

Trump and the GOP are actively inciting violence, and neither the media nor Democratic leadership appear willing to hold them accountable.

President Trump and the Republican Party—with indirect aid both from an increasingly corporatized media industry and a Democratic leadership that appears afraid of offending… someone—are now openly and actively promoting state-sanctioned violence. This is a tactic of fascists and must be taken seriously.

On Monday, a bomb was found at the home of philanthropist George Soros. This morning, explosive devices described by MSNBC as “nearly identical,” were found at the home of former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; the home of former President Barack Obama; the Sunrise, Florida, office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), and CNN. (In the latter case, the device was addressed to former CIA Director and commentator John Brennan, a CNN commentator.) Other packages intercepted by the post office were addressed to former Attorney General Eric Holder and to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). Luckily none of these were detonated and no one was hurt.

What do these people have in common? They are political opponents and vocal critics of Donald Trump. As a result, they are targets of vicious, anti-democratic attacks by Trump and his allies in the GOP and an increasingly emboldened white nationalist movement with which Trump has now openly identified himself.

Make no mistake: These threats are acts of domestic political terrorism. It was not a matter of if, but when such things began to happen, because violence is an underlying theme of this administration.

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We have a president who not only has overlooked and excused violence, but who has actively called for it. A president who employs domestic abusers and nominates men credibly accused of sexual assault to the Supreme Court. A president who proclaims his “love” for brutal dictators such as Kim Jong Un, and who refuses to hold “allies” accountable for the cold-blooded murder abroad of journalists who are not only working for U.S. outlets but are permanent U.S. residents.

This is not just about Trump, however. The GOP has been effectively subtweeting calls to violence for many years now. It has looked the other way and asked “Who, us?” when called upon to address the violent rhetoric of supporters like Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly. It’s been obvious for years that right-wing violence is on the rise: A 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security documented the growing threat of right-wing terrorism in the United States. Conservatives, however, alternately ignored and criticized the report for fear of offending right-wing extremists. By failing to condemn these groups, the GOP has lent more than tacit support to their tactics and allowed them to flourish in part because they serve a concrete purpose.

Now, however, we have an actual extremist in the Oval Office, the willing “blunt instrument” of white nationalists such as Steve Bannon. Trump, who has been president for two years, still targets former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as “a criminal.” He continues to lead chants of “lock her up” at his rallies. Just this week, Trump was joined in this effort by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who “joked” that perhaps his opponent, Democratic senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke, could share a cell with Clinton. Trump and members of the GOP have helped spread vicious, anti-Semitic lies about Soros and the groups supported by his foundations involved in promoting democracy throughout the world. Trump has called groups of advocates exercising their First Amendment rights “an angry mob.” At a recent rally, he called Democrats “arsonists.” He actively spreads lies about everyone from immigrants desperately seeking asylum in the United States, to Muslims, to groups like Black Lives Matter, to women who’ve been sexually assaulted.

Still members of the GOP are unwilling to criticize him. “Moderates” and “grown-ups” like Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham have all made excuses for and enabled Trump’s white supremacist agenda by supporting his policies, programs, and nominees. They would like you to think that not only does the party’s rhetoric not matter, it’s a “both sides” issue.

As the Washington Post reported today:

When asked Wednesday whether some of Trump’s rhetoric might have contributed to the mailings, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) defended the president’s remarks. “A lot of things could have contributed to that,” he said. “Our society has become fairly complex. We think people ought to moderate on both sides.” He added, “I don’t see anything really wrong with the president. I think that, you know, he’s in a tough position, he’s attacked on all sides and he ought to be able to express himself.” [Emphasis added.]

Violence and intimidation have always been used by the right wing and the powerful in the United States as a means of maintaining control and supremacy over specific populations. Native populations know this because they were forcibly removed from their land. Black people know this because violence and intimidation have been used as a means of enforcing slavery, reinforcing discrimination and segregation, intimidating would-be voters, and suppressing the votes of specific communities. Asian immigrants know this because violence was used to enforce Chinese labor in building railroads, and to put Japanese citizens in internment camps during World War II. Women know this because forms of power-driven violence ranging from domestic violence to rape and other forms of sexual assault are not taken seriously.

But it is the duty of our government, no matter how often we have failed, to protect and promote the rights of all individuals and to actively counter such violence and extremism. Today, however, the U.S. government, led by the GOP, has become is the actual inciter of violence and extremism.

For a very long time, the Republican Party has been nurturing this violence, albeit quietly. Until recently, party leadership has tried to keep its distance, making ample use of plausible deniability, relying on what the media often quaintly refers to as “dog whistles” and spreading crackpot conspiracy theories through unofficial channels like Alex Jones and InfoWars. Those whistles have always conveyed clear messages to their intended audiences about white supremacy; the conspiracy theories are always deployed against those over which the right wants to maintain control. And they have always signaled permission for, at best, the use of intimidation and, at worst, the use of outright violence to keep “others” in their place.

But after Barack Obama was elected president, open calls for violence, the use of nativist rhetoric, and the spread of absurd conspiracy theories were not only tolerated but adopted unapologetically by Republicans as an open and accepted political tactic. Racist tropes and insults abounded, and even became staples of campaigns: In 2016, then-presidential nominee Trump asserted that Obama is not a citizen and that he and Hillary Clinton are “co-founder[s]” of ISIS.

That year, Trump also stated that if Clinton was elected and nominated justices to the Supreme Court, “Second Amendment people” might be able to “act.” At the time, after blaming the media for being “dishonest” in reporting his statement, Trump and other Republicans tried to pass the comment off as a joke.

As I wrote then:

However characterized, Trump’s statement is not only part of his own election strategy, but also a strategy that has become synonymous with those of candidates, legislators, and groups affiliated with the positions of the GOP.

To me, the phrase “Second Amendment people” translates to those reflexively opposed to any regulation of gun sales and ownership and who feel they need guns to arm themselves against the government. I’m not alone: The comment was widely perceived as an implicit threat of violence against the Democratic presidential nominee. Yet, GOP party leaders have failed to condemn his comment, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreeing with the Trump campaign that it was “a joke gone bad.”

This was no joke. It’s part of a strategy. It was incitement to violence no different than Trump’s call at a 2016 rally for his supporters to “rough them up” in response to protests, or his offer to pay the legal bills of anyone who actually harmed a protester.

The GOP is now openly promoting radicalization of its supporters to ensure—at literally any cost—that power is concentrated and remains in the hands of an increasingly small share of the U.S. population, namely the white and the wealthy.

It was not by accident, but purposeful, that in the aftermath of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, intended to intimidate civil rights advocates—and leading to the death of activist Heather Heyer—Trump called Nazis “very fine people.”

It’s not by accident, but purposeful, that the right wing regularly vilifies and lies about the “dangers” of immigrants from Mexico, and Central and South America. Look at the grotesque use by Trump and the GOP in the final weeks before the 2018 midterms of the plight of vulnerable people fleeing violence to incite fear and hatred in the Republican base as an explicit election “turn out” strategy intended to ensure the GOP can maintain power. This rhetoric is of course compounded by real harms in another form of state-sponsored violence, the actual caging and indefinite imprisonment of asylum seekers and immigrants—including, literally, babies and children ripped from their families—by the Trump administration, actions for which the GOP excuses by rationalizing its own lies and conspiracy theories.

It’s not by accident that the National Rifle Association fights even the most meager forms of gun regulation, celebrates public displays of “open carry,” including automatic and semiautomatic weapons meant only to kill people, and promotes the idea that gun owners may at some point have to take to the streets to defend against all those people of color, immigrants, and others.

It’s not by accident, for example, but purposeful, that a so-called “pro-life” movement housed primarily in the Republican Party has used violent rhetoric against both women and health providers, thereby both implicitly and sometimes explicitly endorsing the use of violence to make sure women are kept in place. During his campaign, Trump stated that women and doctors involved in abortion care “should face some form of punishment” if abortion was criminalized, a statement which brought gasps from an incredulous media corps but which is, in fact, the core position of the anti-choice movement. Not surprisingly, violence against providers rose last year as anti-choice terrorists became more emboldened.

Finally, it’s not by accident Trump and the GOP have taken to calling the media the “enemy of the American people,” because fascism is dependent on fear, lies, and loyalty, and a free press is a threat to all of these. In their eyes, if a few journalists are killed along the way, it’s the cost of doing business.

The greatest danger right now, perhaps, is that much of the media in the United States has become less about journalism and more about profits and as a result helps maintain the power structure of the ruling elite. So even as Trump threatens journalists, news outlets fail to fully inform the public or call out the right’s lies. The most fundamental role of journalism in a democracy is to speak truth to power. Yet, many media outlets promote a false equivalency between fascist movements and democratic protests, responding to actual violence with “yeah, they do it, too, responses,” likening citizens protesting against voter suppression, police violence, and environmental degradation, or protesting for expanded access to health care, women’s rights, and public education to politicians calling for outright violence. There is no equivalence, however, between a protester “petitioning” the government via non-violent protest, and the president celebrating an assault on a journalist. Comparing these is in fact another form of gaslighting.

Large, corporate media outlets ranging from the New York Times to CNN to Politico and others increasingly rely on a business model that is one part sensationalism and one part pandering to the far right out of fear of being attacked as “too liberal.” As though they were working as Trump’s communications manager, for example, the New York Times published large front-page photos of asylum seekers two days in a row, feeding the perception this was an actual story about a threat, and not an “emergency” concocted entirely by Trump. That not only reflects poor news judgment and a lack of integrity on the part of the Times, it gives credence to bald-faced lies. There are many examples of such failures.

These and other outlets appear to be incapable of or unwilling to distinguish between the actions of constituents speaking truth to power and the use of terror, intimidation, and lies used by those in power to maintain supremacy over the majority of this country’s citizens. In doing so, some journalists and media outlets act as though they are in abusive relationships, always trying to please their abuser by doing more of what they think will be pleasing. Or, maybe, it’s that they are part of the power structure itself and have completely lost their way. In either case, in the same way that for reasons of his own power and enrichment, Trump won’t hold Putin or Mohammed Bin Salman accountable for their actions, the media is not holding the GOP accountable for theirs.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Democrats, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, offer anemic and equivocal responses to the GOP’s tactics. Schumer did the work of fascists for them yesterday when he decried violence by actors “across the political spectrum.” Again, shaming public officials and confronting them about health care and sexual assault is not violence and is not equivalent. Schumer’s statement underscores what a weak and clueless leader he is. I am as worried about the lack of strong vision and leadership by the Democrats as I am about Republican-sponsored violence, because without a strong, centered, and unapologetic political counterweight to the GOP, we can’t protect our democracy.

Fear, lies, and state-sanctioned violence are the fast-acting yeast of fascism. And these are the tools of the political party now in power in the United States. We are in an emergency, and we may find we are unable to come out the other side. The first and most urgent step to ensuring we do is to vote on November 6. It’s the very first but most urgent action you can take. We have to build unwavering opposition to fascism in the United States and elect leaders we can press to pursue a progressive democratic agenda. Otherwise, the future of this country looks bleak.

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