Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book, “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Now that the federal authorities have arrested Cesar Sayoc in connection with the explosive devices sent to many of those whom Donald Trump rages against as enemies – prominent Democrats, other critics of the President and CNN – some will argue that he is merely a disturbed individual, a lone actor, with no connection to the atmosphere created by the Trump presidency. This is most likely not true.
Yes, Cesar Sayoc appears to be a troubled man. The terror spree he conducted could only be carried out by a person with certain psychological deficits. However, he is not a unique character operating in a vacuum. Cesar Sayocs can be found almost anywhere in America. It is this reality that burdens public figures, especially presidents, with the responsibility to use care and caution as they lead the nation. The exception is Donald Trump, whose superheated rhetoric could make himself a factor in the run-up to terror.
Investigators will eventually reveal many factors that could have played a role in the process that led to the mailing of the explosive devices. Likely Trump’s rhetoric will be just one of many elements. However, denying that it played a role is not an option. Neither can we expect Trump to change.
Trump campaigned using taunts and suggestions that all the Cesar Sayocs could have heard as calls to violent action. When a protester interrupted a rally, Trump announced that he would “like to punch him in the face” and waxed sentimental about the days when protesters would be “carried out on stretchers.”
He referenced a “Second Amendment” response to Hillary Clinton’s possible election and offered to pay the legal bills for those who assault his protesters.
Trump allies and fans rejected the notion that he was playing a dangerous game and instead praised his willingness to forgo political correctness and speak plainly. However, this wasn’t plain speech, it was incitement, and the notion that milder rhetoric is somehow less sincere is absurd.
Politicians who honor the boundaries of decency and public safety are not mealy-mouthed pleasers. They are normal adults who respect public safety.
As president, Trump never pivoted from his destructive campaign mode to become a leader of all the American people. Just weeks ago, he praised fellow Republican Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter who had asked him a question. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of … He was my guy,” said Trump.
The President’s encouragement of violence, combined with rhetoric about the press being “enemies of the people” and political opponents being un-American, are green lights for those who are vulnerable to suggestion. Worse, when you think about the President’s impact on fevered minds, is his penchant for conspiracy theories. With no evidence, he recently suggested terrorists were among immigrants now marching toward the United States.
Previously, Trump has said that the hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico was inflated to hurt him politically, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered, climate change is a “hoax” and millions of people voted illegally in 2016. Keep in mind, this is the President of the United States we’re talking about, and though they are favored on the fringes of the internet, none of these ideas is supported by facts.
Taken together, Trump’s paranoid rants encourage people to believe that almost anything can be true. Can’t find actual facts to support your belief that some conspiracy is afoot? Well, the absence of facts proves that the media is in on the game. An election doesn’t go your way? As the President says, the system is “rigged.”
Consider Trump’s paranoid blather from the perspective of a man who may already feel alienated, angry and afraid. You hear the President of the United States repeatedly assert that the dishonest press is hiding the real truth. He implies that his enemies are out to hurt him and he needs the help of ordinary citizens. Add the way that Trump encourages violence and seems to thrill at the prospect, and is it any wonder that someone would act? The real wonder is why it doesn’t happen more often.
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Having degraded our national reality with his conspiracy theories, lies and incitements, the President has shown he is incapable of stopping his own deviant behavior. Hours before the FBI made its arrest, he was playing the victim and downplaying the seriousness of the terror campaign with a tweet that whined about how “this ‘Bomb’ stuff” had slowed the “momentum” of Republican candidates in the upcoming election.
The bottom line for Trump is not the nation’s well-being, safety or sanity. It is, as his complaint revealed, his power. He will never be the leader who restores our normal civic life and creates a context in which the Cesar Sayocs among us won’t be moved to act. That task is ours.