At first glance, the massacre that killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Pittsburgh synagogue feels like an anomaly. Hate crimes of this magnitude aren’t an everyday occurrence, and the kind of people that often carry them out hold unusually deep resentment for the groups they’re targeting.
The same could be said about the 14 mail bombs sent to critics of President Trump. The van the suspect was living in was plastered with fringe right-wing political posters, suggesting that he was already inclined towards acts of political violence.
Yet, all of these events share the same common denominator. The Pittsburgh shooter and the mail bomber did not magically become so radicalized that they were willing to carry out an act of violence. Instead, the political environment surrounding the attacks inspired them to act on already existing prejudices they held. In other words, these acts of terrorism are contextual, rather than random.
For instance, it should act as no surprise that radicals are sending pipe bombs to politicians and media figures. For the past three years, we’ve only been hearing one thing about them: that they are an existential threat to Americans. President Trump has repeatedly referred to the press as the “enemy of the people” and as “scum.” He continually positions them in opposition to American interests, referring to unfavorable reporting as “fake news” whenever he gets the chance.
More importantly, Trump frequently condones violence against his political opponents. From offering to pay the legal fees of supporters who assault protesters at his rallies to congratulating representatives who physically assault reporters, Trump has helped normalize violence as a response to disagreement.
The Pittsburgh shooter is another case-in-point. He justified his rampage by claiming that Jews were responsible for the “migrant caravan” heading towards the US border. Though the migrants are coming to apply for asylum and will be dispersed by at the Mexican border as per usual, Trump has used the timing to ratchet up rhetoric about immigration, likening the group of migrants to an “invasion.”
To be clear, Trump didn’t blame the migrants’ arrival on Jewish people. Conspiracy theories like that typically come from fringe, online white supremacist group, the kind of groups Trump legitimizes when he retweets them and refuses to condemn their actions.
From the perspective of a misinformed, radicalized citizen, a mass wave of immigrants coming to topple your border sounds pretty scary. If the forums you’re poking around in are blaming it on other minority groups, and those forums are similar to the ones the president has retweeted, those insane views are no longer conspiracy theories. They are unpopular ideas that have been tacitly accepted by the most powerful man in the world.
Once that has happened, there’s little stopping someone from acting on their beliefs with violence, especially if they see themselves as patriots serving their country by eradicating a threat.
The most important thing to recognize is that the words of a sitting president are powerful. Casting the press, members of the opposition or minority groups as threats to the survival of the country trigger a self-defense response. If you truly believe immigrants, Hillary Clinton and CNN are working to systematically undermine your way of life, you have two options: debate or fight back. When debate has been ruled out by the elected officials you look up to, you take matters into your own hands.
We can’t stop conspiracy theorists from subscribing to irrational ideas or even from carrying out violent acts. But we can be honest about who is responsible for emboldening them to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
To start, politicians and the media need to stop pretending as if people are to blame on “both sides.” Sometimes, there truly is a disproportionate set of blame to place. In this case, it is on a president who endorses, excuses and emboldens violence as a response to disagreement.
Beyond politics and media, we the people need to step up, too. As a public official, Trump has a unique responsibility to use his speech responsibility. When he doesn’t, it’s our duty to call him out and be clear that discriminatory language has no place in the mouth of the President of the United States. The risk of refusing to do so for fear of sounding partisan or offensive risks the lives of people whom Trump lashes out at.