The horrific mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday, hours after a man was arrested for sending pipe bombs to people and institutions denounced by Donald Trump, has prompted politicians and pundits of all stripes to embrace the sacred virtue of "civility."
The chairs of the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees called for more bipartisanship and cooperation, with Ohio Republican Steve Stivers saying "we all bear some responsibility" for the state of the country's overheated rhetoric. Trump himself denounced "political violence" and "the politics of personal destruction" at a rally before complaining about unfair media coverage. USA Today quoted the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse saying, "Our civil discourse is so off track that it is becoming a national security threat.” Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on ABC that "the attack yesterday and the attempted pipe bombings over the course of last week should be a wake-up call for all Americans to demand change," and those demands should include "a more civil discourse, and a more civil environment generally." White House adviser (and frequent cable news opinion-haver) Kellyanne Conway took the opportunity to denounce "anti-religiosity" among late-night comedians in particular.
Incivility is, of course, a problem in American political life; the country seems to be more divided than ever, thanks partly to a Trump administration that's pushing a far-right agenda and race-baiting rhetoric designed to stoke anger. But while it's not wrong to worry about partisanship and rage, the synagogue shooting exposed a different American disease: There are a lot of racists out there waiting to be radicalized, and when they decide to be violent, permissive gun control laws make it easy for them to access weapons and murder people. Terrorism is not the same thing as discourse.
The synagogue shooting suspect appeared to subscribe to a racist conspiracy theory pushed by Trump and other conservatives about how the caravan of Central American migrants was actually being funded by leftists, possibly including George Soros, the frequent target of anti-Semitic conspiracies. But the mass killing also fits into a pattern of people (almost always white men) who are radicalized at least in part by fringe right-wing websites and go on to commit acts of violence against people of color, Jews, Muslims, and abortion clinics, among other targets. Since 9/11, radical right-wing groups have committed far more major acts of terrorism than Muslim extremists; reports of anti-Semitic violence and harassment rose sharply last year, part of a larger, multi-year spike in US hate crimes.
It's impossible to say what percentage of this, if any, can be attributed directly to Trump—though his praise of white nationalists at Charlottesville, among many other shameful uses of his presidential platform, surely haven't helped. This vagueness is the problem with situating the recent racist violence as a product of "incivility." That framing prompts a conversation that tends to be wishy-washy and lends itself to a pointless chin-stroking: Perhaps Trump goes too far in his speeches, but does the media not also go too far, at times? Yes, Republicans say heinous things, but Democrats harass them at dinner! Americans should spend less time yelling at each other, and more time listening. We all agree racist terrorism is bad, but wasn't the gunman who shot up a congressional baseball game a Bernie Sanders supporter? Both sides have their bad apples, you see.
Those types of abstractions fail to capture the reality of political terror in America. Though you can point to some scattered examples of left-wing violence (primarily the shooting mentioned above and some brawling by antifascist activists at rallies), right-wing violence has long been more pernicious and widespread. Abortion clinics and doctors have been regular targets for terrorists for decades. Armed right-wing militias are frighteningly common across the country. White supremacists committed more murders than any other extremist faction last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
You can imagine the response from conservatives if ISIS were committing such atrocities like the pipe bomb campaign or the synagogue killings. There would be calls for draconian security measures, racial profiling, surveillance, and more. By contrast, the Trump administration has failed to make countering white nationalism a priority. The budget of a Department of Justice program focused on countering white nationalism has been slashed, though the FBI has found the time to devote some attention to "black identity extremists."
Republicans have also obstructed any effort to pass gun laws that might make it more difficult for unstable people to acquire weapons. In the aftermath of the synagogue shooting, Trump reiterated his support for the death penalty and said the synagogue should have had an armed guard, which fits with the general GOP line that more guns are always the answer.
Even more troubling are the direct links between the Republican Party and extremists. In August, the Atlantic uncovered that a former Department of Homeland Security official was on an email thread that also included notorious white nationalist Richard Spencer, and CNN revealed a Trump speechwriter had spoken at a 2016 conference attended by white nationalists (that speechwriter subsequently quit). Earlier this month, New York's Metropolitan Republican Club invited Gavin McInnes* to reenact the killing of a Japanese socialist, and the scene outside turned into a brawl, during which McInnes's Proud Boys were caught on video beating up protesters. In the days following the fight, at least three of the Proud Boys were arrested and charged with assault.
When confronted by this kind of violence—disproportionately committed by right-wing extremists, often enabled by lax gun laws, and insufficiently condemned by the Republican president—a conversation about "civility" achieves nothing. Let's be more polite to each other, more tolerant of people who think differently than we do. Fine. But right now, the more pressing problem is that many conservatives are too tolerant of those who commit acts of political violence, and too willing to accept—and promote—the vile conspiracy theories that manifest on the darkest corners of the right-wing internet.
The true causes of violence have to be identified and named—and the diffuse language of civility too often helps obscure the ideology lurking behind these incidents.
Last Wednesday, a white man murdered two black senior citizens in a Louisville supermarket. (In case his motivations were unclear, he reportedly told a white man he encountered, "Whites don’t kill whites.”) The next day, Republican Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin criticized a comment about throwing a grenade into a group of Republican leaders left on a Democratic Party Facebook page. Bevin called on the Democratic page to take down the comment, and even named the eight people who "liked" it, adding that hate was "coming increasingly from one side... It's coming from the people who espouse tolerance," evidently meaning the Democrats. At the same time, he’s avoided calling the shooting a “hate crime” and indicated he wasn’t interested in changing gun laws. Instead, when talking to reporters, he described a “slippery slope” leading from the harassment of Republicans at restaurants to, I guess, racist murder.
In the wake of a deluge of horrific right-wing terrorism, it's hard to imagine a worse response than that kind of civility.
*Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of Vice Media. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded the Proud Boys organization in 2016.
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