Talk to members of the Greatest Generation, and they’ll tell you how FDR’s words inspired a nation, reeling from the depression, to rise up and defeat the forces of evil that were threatening liberty. Most people born to the Baby Boom generation would talk about how John Kennedy’s words inspired them, or someone they knew, to take an active role in civic life, join the Peace Corps, or enter public service. Listen to anyone from Gen-X, and they’ll recount how Ronald Reagan’s words helped heal a nation after the Challenger disaster, or how Bill Clinton helped us process what happened in Oklahoma City.
There is one historic truism that we know is true, because we’ve all lived through it – a president’s words can inspire thoughts and actions, like no one else.
For most of that history, we’ve understood that truism in the pure, good sense. Presidents have been aware of that incredible power, and most wielded it responsibly.
This past weekend, a number of pundits took to the airwaves to say that we cannot blame Donald Trump’s words for the actions of the “MAGA Bomber,” Cesar Sayoc, Jr., or the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers.
To them, it seems, a president’s words can only be linked to people’s actions, when those actions are good and aspirational. That’s an intellectually dishonest take that only serves to protect Trump from any responsibility for the results of his toxicity.
From the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in America, to promoting the idea that the bombs sent to media, former presidents, and high ranking officials was a false flag, aimed at hurting the GOP’s electoral chances, Donald Trump hasn’t met a conspiracy theory that he won’t entertain, if not overtly promote.
He opened his campaign with a rant against Mexicans, who he tagged as rapists and drug dealers who bring crime. He continued by spreading fear that all Muslim refugees would bring terrorism to the shores of the US. And the day that Sayoc was arrested, Trump continued to go on a screed about “globalists,” a dog whistle for anti-Semites, laughing when an audience member responded by saying that George Soros, the Jewish philanthropist, should be locked up.
His rallies have been known to break out in violence, which he condones and promotes, by promising to take care of attorney fees of those who beat up protesters. He posts doctored wrestling videos on Twitter, of him beating someone up, who has the CNN logo covering their face, and has posted memes of him whacking Hillary Clinton in the back of the head with a golf ball.
For years before he reached the White House, and in the nearly two years since, Donald Trump has fed America a steady stream of conspiracy theories, targeted and bigoted hatred, and the notion that violence is a solution to problems.
If the words of past presidents have inspired people to work to reach the moon, or defeat fascism, then surely the words of this president can inspire the violent hate, based on a belief in conspiracies, exhibited by the bomber and the shooter.
Trump’s rants against the media (the “enemy of the people,” as he calls them), have inspired teeshirts at his rallies that say, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” Indeed, Cesar Sayoc, himself, was at a Trump rally, chanting “CNN sucks” at the press pen, with the rabid crowd. The caravan of refugees that Trump has turned into a slow-motion 9/11 partly inspired Bowers.
It is truly an awful thing to consider – that an American president would use his awesome platform to inspire hate, evil, and violence, when other presidents have used that power to inspire higher aspirations, coming together, and moving fearlessly to the future.
It’s time for pundits to accept that just because it is an awful thing to consider doesn’t make it less real. It’s time for them to stop helping Donald Trump evade culpability.