In the aftermath of the package bomb mass assassination attempt and the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of blame to go around. Before I get to politicians and the media, I want to focus first on the biggest driver of hate and division in our country, the Internet.
We’ve always been divided politically. People have always hated others and people have always been attracted to conspiracy theories. What’s different today is the forum available 24/7 that drives that hate and division. There’s a place where people can go to have their twisted views constantly reaffirmed by others. Whereas before they’d be more isolated, today they’re empowered.
The Internet is like an incubator for grievance and rage. Got a problem? The Internet has someone for you to blame. Hate a person or group of people? The Internet has a place to reaffirm that hate. Got a cockamamie theory about something? Somewhere on the Internet someone agrees.
The Internet is a place where facts all too often go to die and misinformation thrives. People regurgitate nonsense talking points about public policy that they got from some media “entertainer” or website without knowing the first thing about the issue they suddenly have a strong, unmovable opinion on.
What do the package bomber and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter really have in common? Hate, which was nurtured online until they decided social media posts about it wasn’t enough and they had to take action. But the Internet isn’t just some independent entity. It’s us. So next time you spread hate and misinformation online, whether it’s about a group or a party or a political figure, just remember that you never know who’s going to see that or how it will affect them. Go back and look at your posts and comments. Is it all about us vs. them? Are you advancing a substantive debate or just taking a quick drive-by shot that feels good? If you’re doing the latter, you’re part of the problem and you’re complicit in making this country dumber, more hateful and more divided.
Peggy Noonan had a great line earlier today. She said, “We can’t let the wack-jobs give us an unhealthy vision of ourselves as a people.”
The dichotomy between what we’ve seen the past few days and what I witnessed a few weeks ago covering the aftermath of Hurricane Michael couldn’t be greater. People helping people, strangers coming to the assistance of others within seconds of a call for help.
When it comes to politics, the extremes keep driving the debate and it’s making more and more people gravitate towards the fringes because that’s all they see now. Jeff Flake, John Kasich, Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar…boring. Donald Trump, Maxine Waters…they go to the extremes and get the attention.
A lot of the blame for this goes to the national media, who prefer dogfights over discussions, sensationalism and conflict over substance and reason, because profit is the motive, not public service, and sadly we’d rather watch two idiots yelling at each other than a legit explanation of something like trade policy or immigration.
Which brings us to the leadership problem in this country, because the example being set at the top, and I don’t just mean by the president, is making things worse.
Donald Trump didn’t create today’s divide. The problem with Donald Trump is that he revels in it. Instead of trying to pull us out of this cycle for the benefit of the country, he leans into it for his own political benefit. And no, there’s no comparison between him and others. He’s in a league of his own on this one, saying and doing things we’ve never seen before.
He’s not directly responsible for the actions of the package bomber, but his rhetoric played a role in what the package bomber deemed were threats that needed to be eliminated and required action.
Trump claims these problems of division are the result of the “fake news” media, but his definition of fake news, according to one of his tweets, is basically anything critical of him. You can’t say false and inflammatory things day in and day out for the express purpose of firing up the base and then blame the media when they push back. Does the media go overboard? Absolutely, just like Fox News and talk radio went overboard during the Obama years. Pick your battles like most adults do. Suck up the rest and lead. Put your big boy pants on and be a man about it.
Presidents have the bully pulpit. Right or wrong, fair or not, they drive the national conversation. With great power comes great responsibility. That includes choosing your words carefully and taking extra care to put out correct information. And no, he shouldn’t get the “but he’s different and not like other politicians” excuse as cover. You can be different and still be responsible, and that means taking the high road on occasion because it’s best for the country, even if it’s not best for you. The presidency isn’t just another job and we shouldn’t want the person occupying that office to act like just another guy at the end of the bar spouting off whatever comes to mind.
As for the rest of our political leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, when win at all cost is the goal and compromise is a dirty word, rhetoric naturally becomes irresponsible. The idea that this policy or that policy, this nominee or that nominee, will bring on the apocalypse plays on people’s fear and ignorance. It’s playing to the cheap seats and we’ve seen it time and time again in these midterm campaigns.
The mobs going after officials at restaurants and the actions of the bomber and shooter certainly aren’t equivalent, but that doesn’t mean you let the mob off the hook. You can’t do blanket generalizations about large swaths of the electorate being racist and bigoted and then be surprised when there’s a fiery counteraction. You can’t go around saying Obamacare is going to kill people or the Trump tax cut is going to kill people or Kavanaugh is going to lead to the Handmaid’s Tale and then lecture the other side about civility and rhetoric.
We either start demanding better from leaders, the media and each other, or welcome to the new normal. That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does mean we need to disagree in a much different way. We’re the only ones who can fix this, and if we don’t the end result isn’t going be a stronger, more prosperous America.