Donald Trump's campaign was always about violence. In addition to smearing immigrants and communities of color, he very often inveighed against the evils of journalists. His rallies featured routine, menacing tirades against reporters, and he encouraged his fans to rough up protesters. One journalist was choke-slammed by a Secret Service agent doing security for Trump, while another was grabbed by Trump's campaign manager. When Ben Jacobs, a friend of mine and a reporter at the Guardian, was body-slammed by congressional candidate Greg Gianforte in the spring of 2017, Harvard legal historian Noah Feldman told me at the time, "In an environment where the president calls the press the enemies of the people, it's not surprising that a candidate would treat a member of the press like an enemy."
In other words, the enmity didn't stop when he became president: Trump has since called journalists in general, and some outlets in particular, "enemies of the people" multiple times on Twitter. After Gianforte won his election, Trump praised him for assaulting Jacobs: "Any guy who can do a body slam … he's my guy" the president said last October, adding, "I shouldn't say this… there's nothing to be embarrassed about." And of course, Trump refused to condemn Charlottesville neo-Nazis even after the murder of an anti-racist activist there in August 2017. The president hasn't backed off his aggressive anti-media rhetoric even after a shooting at a Maryland newsroom last year and even after the publisher of the New York Times warned him his remarks were giving authoritarians abroad an excuse to crack down on their own countries' media.
Fast-forward to this week. When a US Coast Guard lieutenant and former Marine was arrested and charged with gun and drug crimes, it quickly became clear that the officer, Christopher Hasson, was allegedly plotting the mass murder of Democrats and journalists and subscribed to white nationalism. Trump has not weighed in on the case, though he had time to tweet about actor Jussie Smollett allegedly faking a hate crime. When his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked about it Friday, her response was brazen even by the standards of the administration:
Obviously, Sanders is lying here—this is not a case where she might have incomplete information or have been deceived by her superiors. This is a conscious falsehood being uttered by a key voice atop the United States government. Anyone who knows anything about Trump knows that he has routinely praised violence, especially against the media.
What usually happens at this point in any given story abut a deranged white person expressing violent urges—Hasson allegedly sought to instigate a race war and was inspired in part by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik—is an argument about correlation and causality. How can we blame Trump for an individual's violent schemes? Well, we can't. There's no evidence, at least as prosecutors have unearthed so far, that this man was inspired by or even sympathetic to the president, as accused mail bomber Cesar Sayoc was. (His recent Google searches did reportedly include mention of Trump being "illegally impeached.") Deranged people with left-wing views have also engaged in acts of violence against politicians, as a disgruntled shooter did at a a congressional softball game in 2017. The fact is that there are very rarely going to be cases where prosecutors or the public can clearly draw a line between the actions of an extremely public figure like Trump and the behavior of more anonymous figures like Hasson. Liberals aren't doing themselves any favors, necessarily, by trying to pin every act or plot of lunacy on their enemy.
But we can certainly hold the administration accountable for its own response to those acts of lunacy. When Sanders, the voice of the executive branch, is telling bald-faced lies about her boss's history of stoking violent sentiment against the press, the question of who inspired who is no longer relevant. The country can't have serious debates about gun violence, or political extremism, or white nationalism, or the role of the press, or racism, or almost anything when the White House is engaged in this kind of casual deceit.
As we head inexorably toward an election year, it's inescapable that even as the president has been isolated politically amid his own ineptitude—government shutdowns, associations with extremists, tax cuts that actually seemed to result in regular people paying more—the country is no closer to having a set of shared facts than it was two years ago. That's when Sanders's predecessor, Sean Spicer, defended Trump's absurd claim that his inauguration crowd was uniquely large. The president may be weakened in the polls since then; the path to beating him may seem clearer. But Sanders's reaffirm that Trump will not respond to circumstances by moderating his rhetoric or even acknowledging that his rhetoric is part of the problem. He's just going to continue denying reality, and it's not clear what, if anything, will bring him—or the country—back to earth.
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