Once again, the country is shocked and outraged by acts of mass violence. Cesar Sayoc allegedly sent pipe bombs to fourteen prominent Democrats. Robert Bowers allegedly killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Both men were troubled loners holding extreme political views.
Once again, we will debate whether the responsibility for these actions lies with the individual perpetrators alone, or whether responsibility is more widely shared. If we do agree that it is shared, we may ask if both sides of the political divide are equally responsible for hatred and violence, or if Donald Trump and his supporters have played a special role in the decline of political civility.
Trump has referred to people like Sayoc and Bowers as “wackos” and “sick, demented people.” He is right to the extent that their actions are far from the general norm. We may reasonably ask what peculiar circumstances and life experiences helped create these mass murderers. Sayoc, for example, was abandoned by his father and apparently desperate for a strong authority figure, which probably contributed to his alleged attraction to Adolph Hitler. Such explanations are only starting points, however, since not every female-headed family produces a budding Nazi.
The sociological point I want to make is that deviations from the norm certainly matter, but the norms themselves matter too. When we normalize hatred by vilifying some out-group, we make it easier for violence-prone individuals to act on their impulses. We tell them who it’s okay to hate. Apparently, Cesar Sayoc had no strong political affiliation until Donald Trump came along. Then Trump became his authoritarian father-figure, and he let Trump define his enemies for him–Obama, the Clintons, immigrants, etc.
Robert Bower hates immigrants too, calling them “invaders that kill our people.” But he has been less supportive of Trump because he doesn’t think Trump goes far enough. Bower focuses his hatred especially on Jews, blaming “the filthy EVIL Jews” for bringing “the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” One particular object of hostility that Trump, Sayoc and Bowers have in common is global investor and Democratic donor George Soros, who is Jewish. Right-wing conspiracy theorists have been accusing him for months of funding the Steele dossier and immigration caravans, and Trump has also accused him of financing opposition to Brent Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. When Trump attacked globalism the other day in the oval office, his young supporters started chanting “Soros! Soros! Soros!”
Trump himself does not have to be as extreme as Bower or Sayoc to give some comfort to their views. I trust that Trump does not approve of sending pipe bombs to Democrats or murdering Jews in synagogues. But he has vilified immigrants by exaggerating their association with violent crime, attacked the legitimacy of our first black president, and characterized the press and his critics as public enemies. The nationalism he has espoused is widely understood as white, Christian nationalism, since his support comes overwhelmingly from those groups. That helps normalize racial and religious intolerance. It feeds into a narrative of white, Christian victimization that discourages power-sharing and encourages domination.
The Republican Party was already well on its way to becoming the white, Christian party before Trump appeared on the scene. As the Democratic Party became more open to civil rights, religious neutrality, and gender equality, Republican politicians saw an opportunity to gain or hold power with subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to white supremacy, Christian supremacy, and male supremacy. They played on fears that many Americans have of living in a more pluralistic global community. Robert Bowers just takes those fears to an extreme when he says things like “Diversity means chasing down the last white person.” He didn’t develop his hostility to diversity in a political or cultural vacuum. Historically, no political party has had a monopoly on politically-motivated violence. In the 1960s, I saw violent acts by liberal protesters as well as violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators by defenders of the status quo. But currently, I see the greater threat of violence from the political right.
Are Sayoc and Bower gross violators of social norms? Of course they are. But the Party of Trump has also been changing the norms themselves, working harder to antagonize and divide while failing to respect and include. I cannot recall an administration or party as content to govern on behalf of an angry minority and as disinterested in building a larger consensus. Getting rid of any policy associated with Barack Obama has become more important than actually solving social problems. Keeping the base in a state of fear and loathing of anyone or anything new and different has become a way of generating support without actually doing much.
Anxieties about globalization are reasonable. Playing on those anxieties to set one group of Americans against another is not. Progressives can present a more constructive response to global diversity and competition than what the right has to offer. It must be one that challenges individuals to earn status through their accomplishments and social contributions, not demand it on the basis of race, religion or gender. It will also have to challenge social institutions to make the investments in people that help them become as accomplished and socially useful as they can be. I see no other way to build a community in which love trumps hate.