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.