Last week a bona fide Trump superfan launched a campaign of terror against the people and entities that Trump repeatedly attacks, often with rhetoric that is absurdly over the top. Also last week, a man who hates Trump launched a dreadful attack against a synagogue, killing eleven Jewish Americans in the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history. It so happens that Trump’s daughter, son-in-law, and three of his grandchildren are Jewish, and that he’s been a stalwart supporter of the nation of Israel.
Yet, despite these dramatic differences, several members of the media put blame on Trump for both attacks. This is a mistake. The attackers are different, their radicalization is different, and to allocate responsibility similarly doesn’t just hinder our ability to respond effectively to radicals, but also needlessly angers Americans who (rightly) believe that their “side” is being unjustly blamed for a terrible crime.
To understand the differences, it’s necessary to discuss the concept of radicalization itself. It’s a huge topic, one deserving book-length treatment, but I’ve found it helpful to discuss radicalization as a process similar to a religious conversion. Indeed, some radicalization actually involves a religious conversion. The result is a fundamental paradigm shift, a new way of looking at the world.
Thus, it is vital to understand the distinct paradigm for each radical community. Even communities that share common enemies can have different motivations and thus demand different responses.
Radicalization often begins with discontent and grievance, and the initial grievance need not be all that specific. A sense of purposelessness can create fertile ground for radicalism. So can despair from a broken family or a lost job. Radicalization involves the sense of forward momentum — along several fronts. The purposeless man gains a purpose. The lonely man gains a community. The ignorant man becomes enlightened. By the end of the process, the true radical sees the world so differently — and filters news through such a warped prism — that we can’t apply any kind of conventional analysis to the way he views the world.
The mail bomber’s life seems to have followed this path. According to an interesting Washington Post profile, he lived an angry, purposeless life. He bounced from job to job. He lived out of his van. He told lies about himself. He falsely claimed to be Seminole (he’s Filipino and Italian), falsely claimed to be a Chippendales dancer, and fraudulently modified his driver’s license to make himself look younger. Then, in 2016, he “found a home” in the “world of conservative trolls.” He was radicalized, specifically as a Trump cultist.
And, make no mistake, that world exists. When I saw the memes and threats that he sent to public figures on Twitter, I immediately recognized the pattern. It’s a simple fact that there exists a community of people, operating mainly online, that follows Trump with fanatical devotion and targets Trump’s critics for campaigns of targeted harassment. It’s also a simple fact that these individuals overlap heavily with the alt-right, white-nationalist community.
Talk to virtually any journalist or writer who published negative stories about Trump or wrote critically about Trump, and they can tell a similar story. They faced more vicious blowback from Trump superfans than they’ve ever encountered in their careers, including when they critiqued other politicians. And that blowback is often explicitly racist or anti-Semitic.
This is no secret. In fact, a very senior member of Trump’s campaign team, Steve Bannon, used Breitbart to openly court and mainstream the alt-right. Make no mistake, when Trump uses vicious rhetoric against his opponents, there are people around him who know exactly what that means — hate, threats, and intimidation will follow Trump’s rhetoric like night follows day. Likely Trump knows this himself.
So when it comes to the bombing suspect, it is absolutely appropriate to explore this Trump-troll community, and it is absolutely appropriate to ask what role Trump’s rhetoric plays in terrible and often terrifying actions against Trump critics.
But not all radicals are the same. Based on the available evidence, it’s beyond a stretch to apply this same analysis to the Pittsburgh shooter. He wasn’t radicalized into the Trump-troll community but into the older, even darker world of anti-Semitism that predates Trump and will sadly endure long after Trump is gone. The Pittsburgh shooter believed the Jews controlled Trump. On Gab, his online platform of choice, he mocked Trump, said he didn’t vote for Trump, and claimed he’d never “owned, worn, or even touched a MAGA hat.”
You can read his archived Gab posts, if you dare, and you’ll see they’re full of both vile anti-Semitic images and posts from Jewish websites. He was obsessed with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS. This man was so radicalized in his hatred for Jews that he could be whipped into a murderous rage by posts from HIAS itself — or by pictures of smiling American Jews welcoming refugees at airports.
Against that backdrop, it’s simply a reach to claim that Trump’s rhetoric or Fox News provoked this man to kill. This was a man so evil and vile that he could look straight at the face of Jewish compassion and burn with a desire to kill.
It is always important to be accurate, fair, and precise. It is especially important in our super-heated political environment. It is one thing to claim that Trump should reckon with the fact that one of his superfans terrorized the very people whom Trump has targeted with absurdly overheated and vicious rhetoric. It is another thing to claim that Trump should reckon with the fact that someone who hates him murdered eleven members of a religious group that Trump has explicitly and intentionally supported with many of his policies and that also includes members of his own family.
These are different situations, requiring different responses. Throwing them together has two negative consequences, one for the Left and the other for the Right. On the left, it can wrongly teach people that Trump is the root of more American evil than he is, which inflates his importance, further inflames American politics, and can dull the senses to other sources of danger. And when allegations of complicity in mass murder start to wrongly extend to larger Republican communities, it rightfully angers conservative Americans who are every bit as shocked and horrified as any other decent person is by the loss of life in Pittsburgh.
On the right, it allows Trump supporters to tune out even valid critiques. After all, when Republicans know that Democrats and the media will always find a way to blame Trump, it leads to reflexive defense and reflexive rejection of progressive allegations. Yet Trump’s rhetoric is irresponsible. He is spiteful and hateful toward his opponents. He does have a cult of personality around him. And there are thousands of trolls in that cult who pick up on that rhetoric and launch campaigns of harassment, intimidation, threats, and — occasionally — violence against Americans who dare criticize Trump.
A responsible leader would understand this dynamic and seek to temper it. Instead, Trump doubles down. Here was Trump this morning:
There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
I believe that Trump has a role to play in tempering his community of radical supporters. I do not believe that Trump can touch the hatred in the heart of anti-Semites like the Pittsburgh killer. The latter represents an ancient evil. The challenge there is far more complex, and we’ve never been able to fully tame the anti-Semitic darkness in too many human souls. As Jesus noted, some demons are more difficult to dislodge than others, and the demon of anti-Semitism is among the most difficult of all to dislodge.