People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos, and the internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.
-Charlie Kaufman, BAFTA Screenwriter’s Lecture, 2011
This week, a man used mail bombs in an attempt to kill two ex-presidents, an ex-secretary of state, a sitting US Representative, a sitting US Senator, a former CIA director, a former Attorney General, a billionaire philanthropist, an Oscar-winning actor, and employees of CNN. There still may be more explosive packages on the way to others. Each of these intended victims has been critical of our current president and has been routinely criticized publicly by our president. A man whose rhetoric rarely rebukes violence and often encourages it. A man who leads his followers in angry chants, brags about sexual assault, and speaks of “both sides” after violence erupts at white supremacist rallies.
It’s no surprise, then, that the prevailing leftist opinion regarding this spate of attempted violence is that Donald Trump set the table for it. That’s a very reasonable take, even if you’re a Republican. Extremists are emboldened by people who seem aligned with them and Trump has consistently refused to convincingly reject extremism. Moreover, when you really break down Trump’s steady calls for violence against those who oppose him, it seems perfectly predictable that someone might feel co-signed by his fantastic visions of punching protesters.
Behavior does not exist in a vacuum and, as Charlie Kaufman states above, it’s ludicrous to pretend that it does. Violent words by a leader normalize the violent thoughts of people on the fringe. That’s well-established. They tether visions of chaos and destruction to our real world. And while Americans love to think of ourselves as a people of personal responsibility, to act as if — all other things being equal — our current president’s way of speaking doesn’t throw a lifeline to people on the brink is a blatant refusal to understand the power of words.
The law only supports this idea up to a certain point, however. Incitement is famously hard to prove, exceedingly rare, and certainly couldn’t be proven against Trump. What we’re left with is a mental exercise. A thought experiment. As such, it’s a tricky one. Because by talking about the president’s rhetoric and what it brings about, we’re opening other doors. Doors which ask us to look at ourselves beyond political affiliations. If we admit that our citizenry is susceptible to a transference of this sort, it’s only fair to engage in a little both-sides-ism and admit that Joe Biden’s Uncle Rico-esque talk of taking Trump behind the school gym also doesn’t do society any favors. Nor does an ex-Attorney General’s speech about kicking Republicans when they go low (metaphor or not). And all of a sudden Kathy Griffin’s whole “Trump’s head” gag feels different, right?
And what of violent music? Or video games? Or movies? It seems a little tricky to say that the only sort of influence that connects with extremists is political. Especially when each of those examples are cited by the American Psychology Association as leading to aggression. Are those conversations for today, with a suspect in custody and no one hurt, or should they be tucked away for some far-off date? Or do we just skip them all together? Close the conversation along with the suspect’s jail cell.
After all, when you start to censor your society because of a fringe few doesn’t it mean that the bad guys have already won? Are we going to censor games over one school shooter? Lyrics over one violent teen? And if we’re not going to talk about other ways that our society might encourage violence, do we still get to thinkpiece the way that Trump does it? Is he our “beyond the pale” example, a man filled with so much poison that a conversation about his rhetoric can actually just start and end with him? Is he so bad that he actually precludes further, wider conversations?
Maybe so. Understanding ways in which Trump’s vitriol begets acts of attempted terror (or intimidation) is undeniable. It’s not revelatory to say that the bully who basks in violent talk provides a safe harbor for those who may want to take part in real-life violence along the same ideological lines. But with the toothpaste out of the tube do we talk about other ways our society might do this? Or skip past those in order to stand firm at the political poles? Do we allow ourselves to get caught in some of the circular thinking that comes with any debate about whether our cultural output is a cause or effect of our cultural input? Or is it better to just throw examples at one another about which terrorist is a triggered-lib and which is on the alt-right, ad infinitum?
Trump’s toxic rhetoric and this resultant bomb scare (whether it ends up having been completely an intimidation technique or whether some of the bombs actually had the ability to explode) opened a door to talk about our society and what it values, in general. It gives us a chance to dream of elevating our discourse and examining all of our cultural inputs and outputs. It even allows us to discuss what role the news plays in all of this. But what Trump and his defenders have never fully savvied is that we probably won’t do any of this right now. Not because we aren’t an intellectually brave people, but because his behavior is so shockingly awful that we’re likely to just stay focused on it. His speeches and lust to see humans who oppose him get pummeled makes broader conversation moot.
Rather than starting important conversations, Trump’s bluster and hyperbole ends them. Perhaps when he’s out of office we’ll take the leaps to talk about how we can work together to create a less violent society. Or maybe we’ll just get swept away in the antics of the next huckster, with society growing worse and worse because we never have time to talk about how to make it better.