It’s easy amid the nearly hourly revelations of new mail bombs being sent to prominent Democrats and others who have been heavily criticized by President Donald Trump to lose sight of the big picture here: We are dealing with an act of political terrorism the breadth of which we haven’t seen in a very long time.
Federal authorities have arrested a man in connection to the suspected explosive packages, according to multiple law enforcement sources Friday.
While there’s still lots we don’t know – who did this, when, why and how – what we do know already makes this a major moment in the political history of our country. Ten packages containing rudimentary but initially assessed to be functional pipe bombs were sent to two former Democratic presidents, a former Democratic vice president, a California congresswoman, a former attorney general in a Democratic administration, an actor who has been an outspoken critic of the President, a prominent liberal donor and a media organization Trump has singled out for criticism.
The goal of these bombs was seemingly to kill or maim. Period. So what we can reasonably gather is that we are dealing with a coordinated attempt by a person or person(s) to inflict grievous harm on not only the most recognizable faces in the Democratic Party but also on Trump’s highest-profile critics.
Even if we draw zero conclusions about why these people and organizations were specifically targeted and whether any blame can or should be doled out to Trump for weaponizing partisanship and polarization, we are still dealing with an absolutely critical moment in the history of our politics.
And while this is the broadest act of obvious political terrorism we’ve seen since at least the 2001 anthrax attacks, when politicians and members of the media received envelopes filled with the bacterium, (five people died and 17 were injured during those attacks), it’s not the only incident in recent years.
Last summer, a man whose social media presence made clear that he was staunchly anti-Trump began shooting at a baseball practice of congressional Republicans – nearly killing Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) in the process. In December 2016, a man stormed a local Washington, DC, restaurant and fired an assault rifle – under the auspices of investigating the debunked “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory regarding Hillary Clinton and a pedophile ring supposedly being run out of the establishment. In Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist marchers violently protested the removal of a Confederate monument – leading to the death of a counter-protester.
No matter who you blame – if you blame anyone – for these acts (and the clear increase in them), it’s impossible to separate them from the political climate in which they are committed. It is beyond debate that we not only live in a time of remarkable political polarization but that we also have increasingly come to regard those who disagree with us as not just wrong or dumb, but evil.
In a 2017 Pew poll on partisanship, 44% of Democrats had a very unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party while 45% of GOPers had a very unfavorable view of Democrats. In both cases, those numbers are twice what they were in 1994 – which no one thinks of as a golden age of bipartisanship and understanding. A 2017 PRRI poll showed that a majority of Democrats (54%) and Republicans (52%) believed the other party’s policies are “so misguided they pose a threat to the country.” A 2016 Pew poll showed that 62% of highly politically engaged Republicans said they were “afraid” of Democrats while 58% said the Democratic Party made them feel “angry.” Among highly engaged Democrats, seven in 10 said they were afraid of the GOP and 58% said they were “angry” at Republicans.
Combine those numbers with the fact that an entire wing of media has grown up around (and profited on) not only telling viewers what they want to hear but also de-legitimizing and de-humanizing those who disagree, and you have a very potent brew. When you then have a President of the United States who declares the media the “enemy of the people” and categorizes those who disagree with him on issues as “evil,” it’s not at hard to understand how we got to this week.
“We are at a boiling point,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in the wake of the discovery of the mail bombs on Wednesday.
He’s right. And to their credit, most politicians – including Trump – said mostly the right things in the wake of this series of acts of political terrorism. In the immediate wake of the acts, that is. Because, by Thursday morning, Trump was blame-casting, tweeting that “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.” Conservative talk radio hosts – not to mention Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs – were floating the idea that the whole thing had been cooked up by some “they” in an attempt to distract from the migrant caravan moving across Mexico toward the US border.
As the last 12 hours make clear, calls for unity and to put an end to the ever-increasing rhetorical excesses of our politicians – most notably the President – will almost certainly fail. And they will fail for a simple reason: There is no political benefit in urging angry and fearful partisans to be less so. Particularly 12 days before an election that will decide which side controls the House and Senate for the second half of Trump’s first term.
Anger, fear and resentment have been the jet fuel of the Trump movement. The argument forwarded by Trump, which goes something like, the people in power – the elites in the Democratic Party, the media, etc. – are not only actively working to keep you down but they are sneering at you while they do it, has tremendous political potency. And when something works in politics, you see more of it, not less.
But simply because something “works” in a political context doesn’t make it defensible. This is one of those cases. When politicians villainize and dehumanize the other party (or the media) for political purposes, they are opening up Pandora’s box. While they may not mean to incite politically motivated violence – it’s all just to score political points and win! – it doesn’t take a genius to understand that it is easier to wish harm on a person who you have been convinced isn’t even really a person.
That’s the moment we have come to in American politics.
UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional reporting.