While Americans still wait to find out the perpetrator of a series of attempted mail bombings directed at various and sundry Democratic and media targets, Democrats and the media themselves aren’t wasting any time casting blame. Whom do they blame, without any evidence whatsoever? President Trump. Their case is simple: President Trump uses overheated rhetoric. He has joked about a Congressman body-slamming a reporter; he has called the press the “enemy of the people”; he has used complimentary language about the world’s worst dictatorships; he offered to pay the legal bills for people at his rallies who assaulted protesters. This, apparently, makes him responsible for a loon sending actual pipe bombs to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Brennan, Eric Holder, and other Democrats.
Paul Waldman made the case explicitly yesterday in the pages of The Washington Post:
We don’t have to look for clues about whether the person responsible has a MAGA hat, or what their party registration is. We don’t have to assign direct blame beyond a reasonable doubt. But what we can say is this: Given what Trump has done and said, this was absolutely predictable. In fact, it’s a wonder that it took this long. It’s not just that Trump advocates violence against his political opponents — though he does. It’s that everything about his rhetoric pushes his supporters in that direction, even if the overwhelming majority will never get quite to the point where they’ll actually commit this kind of act of terrorism.
This is also the argument of both Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who issued this statement: “President Trump's words ring hollow until he reverses his statements that condone acts of violence. Time and time again, the President has condoned physical violence and divided Americans with his words and his actions.”
Oddly, that wasn’t Pelosi’s mindset after a Bernie Sanders supporter nearly murdered House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and shot up other Congressmen last year.
That’s because members of the political Left recognize that heated rhetoric does not mean violent rhetoric; presumably, Democrats wouldn’t connect Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-CA) recommendation to publicly confront public officials as incitement to sending Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) ricin over her Supreme Court vote, for example.
That’s correct. We have a high legal standard in this country for incitement, which we should. In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the Supreme Court crafted a two-part test in determining whether speech was unprotected under the First Amendment thanks to incitement: (1) the speech was “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and (2) the speech was “likely to incite or produce such action.” Nothing President Trump has said was directed toward producing bombs mailed to political opponents, nor was it likely to do so. Trump’s rhetoric has been immoral – I’ve criticized it routinely. But it doesn’t amount to incitement, and it’s far more dangerous to start broadening the category of incitement in order to quash speech than it is to allow such speech and supposedly risk violent action.
Now, that’s not to say that heated speech doesn’t sometimes breach the bounds of morality. Clearly it does. President Trump shouldn't be praising Greg Gianforte for body-slamming a reporter. Neither should Don Lemon of CNN defend Antifa.
But in terms of mental health, the American body politic is like a series of concentric circles: a core of mentally healthy people who won’t commit political violence no matter what, a larger group of people who can easily distinguish heated rhetoric from violently inciting rhetoric, and a very small fringe of people, often mentally ill, who could react violently to heated rhetoric. Our law and morality has never held that rhetoric’s effect on that small fringe outweighs the actual content or intent of the speech. To do so would be to attack the core of speech.
That’s just what many Democrats and many in the media are doing right now, though. Their argument is that they don’t need evidence that President Trump’s rhetoric was the actual cause of the attempted bombings, or even the proximate cause, or even a proximate cause. The fact that Trump attacks his opponents with alacrity means that we can lay violence at his feet. Speech is, in this view, a form of violence. Which makes speech subject to legal ramifications.
That’s dishonest. It’s nasty. And it’s likely to lead to more violence, not less, as Americans determine that the speech of others is an actual threat to their own safety.