WASHINGTON – I was home with my family Sunday afternoon when an email arrived from a reader with a proposal. He wanted to lynch me.
“Rope, Tree, Journalist,” the man wrote. “Some assembly required.” To this slogan, made popular by T-shirts Donald Trump supporters wore at his rallies, my would-be hangman added his offer: “I will assemble for you.”
This bit of, er, gallows humor was the latest, though far from the worst, of the sort of correspondence my colleagues and I have been receiving lately.
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There was a time when threats against journalists, like threats of any sort of political violence, were exceedingly rare. But in Trump’s America, such threats are neither rare nor idle.
If you doubt that, consider the events in recent days at Comet Ping Pong, the family pizza place in Northwest Washington I’ve been frequenting with my daughter ever since she was a toddler a decade ago. Lately, the owner and staff at Comet have been getting death threats, spurred by radio host Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist with close ties to the president-elect.
Jones has been whipping up a bogus and bizarre accusation that Comet is a front for a Hillary Clinton-affiliated pedophilia ring, and the resulting calls and messages threaten a “public lynching” of this nonexistent ring. “I pray someone comes to Comet pizza with automatic weapons and kills everyone inside,” wrote one.
Comet’s owners asked the FBI for help but heard nothing in reply from James Comey’s agents. They heard instead from a North Carolina man, carrying an assault rifle, who walked into Comet and started shooting on Sunday afternoon – by coincidence, about the same time I got the email from the aspiring hangman. The man told police he had come to “self-investigate” the pedophilia conspiracy. Mercifully, nobody was hurt.
The notion that Clinton and her aides are involved in pedophilia has been furthered by none other than Michael Flynn, the man Trump tapped to be his national security adviser. On Nov. 2, Flynn tweeted about allegations that Clinton emails included evidence of “sex crimes with children.” Even after the man fired his assault weapon inside Comet on Sunday afternoon, Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., spread further suspicion on Twitter about Comet and the Clinton pedophilia ring.
This would appear to be the new normal: Not only disagreeing with your opponent but accusing her of running a pedophilia ring, provoking such fury that somebody takes it upon himself to start shooting. Not only chafing when criticized in the press but stoking anti-media hysteria that leads some supporters to threaten to kill journalists.
After The Washington Post reported Sunday about the Comet gunman and the nonsense conspiracy theory that motivated him, the reporters received emails and tweets saying “I hope the next shooter targets you lying sacks of s–- in the media.”
Trump is not directly responsible for every violent word or action of his followers. But he foments violence. As The Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, has noted, when Trump refers to journalists as “the lowest form of life,” “scum” and the enemy, “it is no wonder that some members of our staff 1 / 8at The Post 3 / 8 and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required.”
Trump, during the campaign, fantasized about Clinton and her judicial nominees being assassinated. He boasted that “I bring rage out” in people, and his violent rallies proved it. Since the election, Trump has falsely accused the media of inciting violence. At his speech in Ohio last week he denounced the “dishonest” media no fewer than six times.
He has also been encouraging Jones, leading publicist of the Comet-Clinton-pedophilia absurdity. Trump has praised Jones’s “amazing” reputation, called Jones after winning the presidency to thank him for his support, and has regularly parroted Jones’s conspiracy ideas.
Now we are beginning to see the consequences of the rage and paranoia Trump has encouraged: A disturbed man fires an assault weapon in a place where tots play ping-pong. The only “crime” of the owner, James Alefantis, was to be a Clinton supporter who had, the WikiLeaks hack exposed, discussed with Clinton aide John Podesta the possibility of hosting a Clinton fundraiser.
If Trump were a different leader, he would declare that political violence is unacceptable in a free society. Perhaps he’d say it after eating a “Steel Wills” pie at Comet.
But instead he continues to fuel rage against his opponents and his critics. More and worse violence will inevitably follow.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.