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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Politicians are morally complicit in fuelling violent action with hate-filled rhetoric

Verbal incendiarist politicians have long used their speeches to fire up hatred, even if they don't break the law themselves

President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Reuters/Al Drago
President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Reuters/Al Drago

In Northern Ireland, during the terrorist campaign known as The Troubles, some politicians were described as “verbal incendiarists”. These leaders used their speeches to fire up hatred and lend violence an air of legitimacy, without breaking the law themselves.

The verbal incendiarists had a vocabulary of violence based on fear. Their followers would then do the dirty work of turning words into deeds with guns and bombs. Typically, an incendiarist politician would tell supporters that their way of life was threatened and that they were being betrayed and oppressed by whoever their enemies were supposed to be.

The result was that easily led young men would try to kill or attack some unfortunate person from the group they were told to fear and hate. But when innocent people died, the verbal incendiarists would change tack. They would solemnly shake their heads at the wickedness of the world and condemn the violence, although often with the suggestion that the fault lay with their enemies for inviting trouble.

Fast-forward to the US today. One of the world’s most prominent verbal incendiarists, Donald Trump, has built his political career on railing against other people, telling crowds whom they should hate and fear. When he mentions Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump encourages supporters to chant: “Lock her up.” Barack Obama and other Democrats attract Mr Trump’s most bitter invective. He has described the actor Robert De Niro as a “very low IQ individual”, CNN as “fake news media” and its journalists as “enemies of the people”.

A congressman who physically attacked a journalist is, according to the president, “my kind of guy”. Then there are his verbal attacks on women, from Stormy Daniels (he calls her “horseface”) to senator Elizabeth Warren, whom he taunts as “Pocahontas”. There is also the financier George Soros, whom Mr Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani once described as “the antichrist", adding "he must go”. The list of Trump hate figures is endless, but Mr Trump is president, not despite such nasty rhetoric; he is president because of it.

Some of those attacked verbally by Mr Trump have now been threatened in a more physical way, by crude bombs in the post. Suspect Cesar Sayoc, who allegedly attended pro-Trump rallies and whose social media accounts were reportedly filled with pro-Trump bombast and anti-Islamic memes, is due in court today to face five charges, including illegally mailing explosives, threatening a former president and assaulting federal officers. While any connection to his attendance at rallies has yet to be proven in court, questions must be asked about moral complicity after two years of Mr Trump spewing hatred and vindictiveness. The daily diet of lies and enmity from the Oval Office is part of a greater sickness that now grips his country.

The targets of mail bombs, from left: former US president Barack Obama; former US vice president Joe Biden ; former secretary of state Hillary Clinton; former US attorney general Eric Holder; former director of national intelligence James Clapper; former CIA director John Brennan; US senator Kamala Harris; US senator Cory Booker; George Soros; hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer; US representative Maxine Waters; US actor Robert De Niro / AFP
The targets of mail bombs, from left: former US president Barack Obama; former US vice president Joe Biden ; former secretary of state Hillary Clinton; former US attorney general Eric Holder; former director of national intelligence James Clapper; former CIA director John Brennan; US senator Kamala Harris; US senator Cory Booker; George Soros; hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer; US representative Maxine Waters; US actor Robert De Niro / AFP

The day after Sayoc's arrest, a gunman burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire, killing 11 and injuring many more. It was the most deadly attack on Jews ever to be carried out on American soil. The suspect, Robert Bowers, had previously posted hate speech about Jews and other minorites on alt-right internet platforms.

Just as with the verbal incendiarists in Northern Ireland, Mr Trump briefly expressed sorrow at these terrible deeds. After the attempted bombings, he called for national unity and more civility in public life, saying: “Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective.” He described the Pittsburgh massacre as an "unimaginable" and "wicked act of mass murder".

This jarred coming from a president who mocked a person with disabilities at one of his rallies and who ridiculed the testimony of a woman who claimed she had been sexually molested by his choice for the position of US Supreme Court.

It didn’t take long for an unrestrained, unscripted Mr Trump to re-emerge, blaming the victims. Following the bomb attempts, he tweeted: “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. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream media must clean up its act, FAST!” Later, he suggested the synagogue murders would not have happened had the temple employed an armed guard.

Psychologists define “projection” as the psychological condition of humans who deny bad impulses in themselves while attributing their own faults to others. Mr Trump clearly projects his own anger and hatred, claiming to be the victim of others. But right now, psychology is less important than politics. After the 1995 Oklahoma bombing – a white-supremacist attack that killed at least 168 people – Bill Clinton successfully pulled the nation together.

After the Al Qaeda outrage of 9/11, George W Bush again successfully managed to bring Americans together. But Mr Trump is a divider not a unifier. At the beginning of November, crucial midterm elections could change the composition of the US Congress and deliver a big blow to the president.

But Divider Donald plays well with Republican voters and they typically turn out in far greater numbers for midterm elections than Democrats. The president’s shamelessness in calling for unity while stoking the deep political, cultural and racial divisions in American society might be breathtakingly hypocritical but such hypocrisy is politically effective. Northern Ireland’s verbal incendiarists did the same thing from the 1970s until the late 1990s. For a president to blame the victims for causing division and therefore somehow soliciting the attention of the bombers is morally despicable, but it is also politically useful.

It means that when Mr Trump says “in these times we have to unify”, what he is really saying is that Americans should no longer criticise him for dividing them.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author