In denouncing the hatred that brought bloodshed to a baseball diamond in Alexandria, Virginia, some people went ahead and spread more of it. Rush Limbaugh, take a bow. You called the shooter “a mainstream Democrat voter.” What do I call you? I want to be clear about my disgust, but not disgusting in my expression of it. That’s the hell of American politics and American discourse today, with its 140-character emissions.
To be seen in a thicket of hashtags and heard above the din, people screech. Passion and provocation blur. One is admirable, the other is adolescent, and too many of us have lost sight of the line between the two.
The shooting that wounded Republican congressman Steve Scalise and four others may or may not be the bitter fruit of that – the biography of the gunman, James Hodgkinson, suggests many prompts, including mental illness – but it demands soul-searching along those lines. If not physically then civically, we’re in a dangerous place when it comes to how we view, treat and talk about people we disagree with. Ugly partisanship may not be new, but some of its expressions and accelerants are. We’d be foolish to let this moment pass without owning up to them.
Over the past decade in particular, the internet and social media have changed the game. They speed people to like-minded warriors and give them the impression of broader company or sturdier validation than really exist. The fervor of those in the anti-vaccine movement exemplifies this. So did the stamina of Americans who insisted that Barack Obama was born abroad – and who were egged on by Donald Trump.
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Admirers of a responsible politician or righteous cause coalesce quickly, but the same goes for followers of a hatemonger or crackpot. One good articulation of this came from David Simas, who was Obama’s political director, in a New Yorker article by David Remnick that deconstructed the 2016 election.
What people find on the web “creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once unthinkable,” Simas told Remnick. Obama, in his own comments to Remnick, picked up that thread, saying, “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”
“The capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal – that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate,” Obama added. Suspicion blossoms into certainty. Pique flowers into fury.
Shortly after that New Yorker article appeared, a 28-year-old North Carolina man named Edgar Welch showed up armed at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Welch had fallen under the spell of #pizzagate and come to believe that children were being imprisoned and sexually abused by Democrats in a basement there. One of the fabulists who’d spread this tale was the son of Mike Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser.
And then came Hodgkinson, who used social media as others do: to marinate in his political antipathies until swollen with them. In a Facebook post in March, he declared: “Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.” Facebook groups to which he belonged included one called Terminate the Republican Party and another called the Road to Hell Is Paved With Republicans.
His life online reflected the goosing, goading, amplifying power of social media and the eminence of outrage in public debate. As Michael Gerson noted in The Washington Post after the shooting, today’s partisans “have made anger into an industry – using it to run up the number of listeners, viewers and hits.” Mocking and savaging political opponents have been “not only normalized but monetized,” Gerson added, and he stated the obvious, which needed stating nonetheless: “If words can inspire, then they can also incite or debase.”
That’s true whether those words are spoken from the right or from the left, and the monetization of partisan combat spans the ideological spectrum. I’m not in any way equating Alex Jones and Bill Maher – the former traffics in contemptible lies meant to whip the agitated into a full-blown frenzy – but both turn politics into spectacle, the better to keep watchers and listeners tuned in.
Our language is growing coarser. Our images, too. And even if they’re only rarely a conduit to violence, they’re always a path away from high-minded engagement.
Madonna fantasizes about blowing up the White House. Kathy Griffin displays a likeness of Trump’s severed head. Stephen Colbert uses a crude term to describe Trump as Putin’s sexual boy toy. Maher suggests that Trump and his daughter Ivanka have engaged in incest. I don’t question the earnestness of these entertainers’ objections to Trump, which are wholly warranted. I ask whether they’re converting even one person with a contrary point of view.
Lately, Trump and his children have been playing the victims of all this, but save your tears. He has been an enormous part of the problem, from before his candidacy to the present. If anyone sets and bears responsibility for our country’s tone, it’s our president, and let’s please not forget that he got all those plaudits last week for his dignified, sensitive response to the Alexandria shooting because we’re never sure we can count on him to clear even the lowest of bars.
He doesn’t so much lead the country as addle it, unhinging everyone in his orbit and anyone pressed to keep tabs on him. Anderson Cooper, flustered by Jeffrey Lord’s blind worship of Trump, describes a vulgar scenario to ridicule it. Politicians litter their remarks with four-letter words.
We’re surrendering restraint and a musty but worthy thing called tact, in ways guaranteed to widen the divisions between us. The Fusion website published a story noting that one of the cops who heroically took on Hodgkinson and possibly saved Scalise’s life was a gay black woman and that Scalise, in his political career, has indulged white supremacists and fought against LGBT rights. That was worth telling.
But the headline began by branding him a “bigoted homophobe,” and the story described this situation as an “especially delicious irony.” “Delicious”? When the congressman is lying in a hospital bed in critical condition?
For more and more Americans, the other side isn’t merely misguided in the extreme. It’s evil in the absolute, and virtue is measured by the starkness with which that evil is labeled and reviled. There are emotional satisfactions to this. There is also a terrible price.