For years, the left has proclaimed that words are violence, and that therefore violence can be used in response to words. They have promoted the notion of “microaggressions” – statements that are inoffensive to most people, but somehow offend you. They have embraced the idea of “safe spaces” from dissenting viewpoints. If words promote violence, the only solution is to stop the words.
The right’s response has been correct: mockery. The right has correctly argued that words are not violence, and that absent express advocacy or defense of violence, words can’t plausibly be linked with violence.
But now it seems that the left may achieve its goal of shutting down debate. Ironically, they may gain their object through actual violence against Republicans. In the aftermath of a Trump-hating Bernie Sanders-supporting Rachel Maddow-watching leftist targeting Republican Congressmen for assassination, many conservatives and Republicans have fallen into the trap of blaming typical political rhetoric for the attack. Laura Ingraham, for example, appeared on Fox News to talk about the incident. Here’s what she said:
This apocalyptic language we hear on other cable networks, where these are supposedly very respected hosts who get up every morning and say, 'Will be republic survive Donald Trump?' In other words, the resistance is a physical resistance. If you believe your survival is at risk, you have the moral duty to physically resist that. And I think this freak yesterday took it to heart.
This is nonsense. And not only is it nonsense, it is hypocritical nonsense. Large portions of the pro-Trump right breathlessly quoted an essay that explicitly compared the election to Flight 93, suggesting that if Hillary Clinton was elected, the aircraft of state would plow into a civilian site; the only hope for the republic was to break into the cockpit. “Charge the cockpit or you die,” the author urged. Ann Coulter said that Hillary’s election would be the “end of America.” Dennis Prager said that America could never “recover from her – or any Democrat’s – victory.” Ingraham herself literally wrote a piece two weeks before the election titled, “How the elites blew up the world.”
Naturally, Ingraham meant all of this figuratively. She did not mean that opponents of Donald Trump would literally blow up the world, and that we had to stop them through violent means. The same holds true of Coulter – she wasn’t going to pick up a gun and start storming barricades if Hillary won. And Dennis wasn’t going to quit his radio show and start military training if Trump lost.
When Republicans talked of a civil war inside the country, they didn’t mean that everyone was rushing for the rifles. They meant it figuratively. That language may have been wrong on the facts and intemperate in approach, but it wasn’t a driver of violence.
Here’s the danger: Republicans, in an effort to finally turn Democrats’ “toxic politics” strategy on Democrats, legitimize the strategy. Both sides declare that typical political rhetoric, let alone borderline political rhetoric, is dangerous. It’s hard to claim that college campuses should allow Heather MacDonald or Charles Murray or Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the same time you say that the word “resistance” could cause violence. The right has correctly resisted the siren call of labeling opposing speech “hate speech.” Now they’re falling for it, out of pure tribalism.
That doesn’t mean that the Democratic rhetoric is justified, intelligent, or moral. Trump Derangement Syndrome is real, and it is toxifying our politics and tearing apart our social fabric. But some the same people who are currently complaining about toxic politics shrugged when President Trump participated in rhetoric far more inflammatory than the word “resistance.”
Here’s the thing: politics is always messy. People have always said inflammatory things. FDR railed against “malefactors of great wealth.” President Obama reportedly threatened executives with the specter of “pitchforks.” The Tea Party called itself the Tea Party based on a movement that eventually became the American Revolution. The right has always understood that the First Amendment leaves room for passionate dialogue – and yes, dialogue we might find inappropriate. But to blame it for violence grants the left a key talking point in their war to restrict speech forcibly. And that’s both stupid of the right and unacceptable as a matter of policy and morality.