In October this year, 15 potentially explosive devices, or what are known as pipe bombs, were sent to prominent and high-ranking Americans including the Obamas and the Clintons.
Film star Robert De Nero, former vice-president Joe Biden, Eric Holder, former US attorney-general, and billionaire George Soros were amongst those who received the bombs.
A pattern emerged whereby all those targeted were critics of US President Donald Trump or had been slighted or defamed by him.
The US then went on the defensive as the authorities asked anyone who had been a critic of Trump, or whom Trump may have publicly slandered, to remain vigilant.
Once the suspect, Cesar Sayoc, was caught, his partisanship surfaced. His van, which doubled as his base, was festooned with stickers that supported Trump and denounced his critics. He had also plastered red targets over the faces of those he construed as enemies in the van.
Trump has had altercations with most of the bomb recipients. He has denigrated Democratic Party presidential elections candidate Hillary Clinton, for example.
He listened to and chuckled at the “lock her up” rants during his campaign rallies, he said that the “Second Amendment people,” those who believe in the right to keep and bear arms in the US, should “do something” to Hillary, and he dubbed her “crooked Hillary.”
The same thing goes for all those who were targeted.
Later, in a shoot-out on 27 October a gunman, Robert Bowers, a white supremacist, killed 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburg in the US. He had targeted Jews on social media and made anti-Semitic statements during the shooting.
For much of the media, Trump’s behaviour and rhetoric had egged on Bowers and his like. During an earlier white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, a civil rights protester was killed, and Trump’s comment then was that there were “very fine people on both sides,” equating white supremacists with ordinary Americans.
In a petition, thousands asked Trump not to visit Pittsburg after the shooting unless he denounced white nationalism ahead of it.
The question today is whether the divisive political rhetoric in the US fosters hostility or even criminal acts. In other words, was Sayoc a by-product of Trump’s rhetoric? Was Bowers a consequence of the same? And is this rhetoric reshaping American politics as well as Americans at large?
Trump’s rhetoric is indeed divisive and racially charged. It has polarised Americans and fed partisanship, stoking hatred and empowering the heartless.
According to Trump, no one is above defamation. Envision the message that Trump supporters receive when they hear the following: “the Democrats will give illegal immigrants free cars;” “the Democrats will abolish American borders;” “the Democrats want to open our borders to a flood of deadly drugs and ruthless gangs,” “the Democrats want to turn America into a giant sanctuary for criminal aliens… don’t kid yourself. That what’s going to happen,” for example.
Does this kind of crassness pass unnoticed by Americans, or will grudge-bearing pro-Trump individuals follow suit in tone and standards? “Knock the crap out of him, would you? I promise you, I will pay your legal fees;” “I’d like to punch him in the face;” “I’ll beat the crap out of you;” “maybe he should be roughed up;” “we are tired of the garbage; get out of here;” and “part of the problem is that no one wants to hurt each other anymore” are samples of Trump’s outbursts.
Trump is also bringing out the worse in those who dislike him, for partisan infighting rules in the US today.
Robert De Nero slammed Trump on the US TV programme Saturday Night Live, and Soros described Trump as “a danger to the world.”
Holder used a sentence from former US first lady Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high,” but then kicked it up a notch by saying “when they go low, we kick them.”
Can such ranting go unnoticed and not leave its mark on Americans? I doubt it. Moral and ethical standards are sinking and losing ground; vulgarity rules; trifling sacred beliefs is taken lightly; and wishing others ill has become the norm.
The end result is that Americans will change, as this rhetoric provides a green light to the Sayocs and the Bowers of the world.
When asked if he plans on toning down or softening his rhetoric, Trump said that his intention was to “tone it up.” He has no intention of restraining himself, for Trump is at the most “Trumpish” when he is combative.
* The writer is a political analyst.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Braving the rhetoric