Politics & Policy

Logic of the Vendetta Now Guides Our Politics

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at a Capitol Hill news conference in March 2018. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
Everybody is using the hypocrisy of the ‘other side’ to justify their refusal to look squarely at their own side’s irresponsible words and deeds.

Whether the packages delivered to leading Democrats and liberals turn out to be functioning bombs or dummy devices intended to send a message, the effect is largely the same: American politics is descending further into the logic of the vendetta.

If you read about famous feuds or intergenerational rivalries — Hatfields vs. McCoys, Israelis vs. Palestinians, etc. — one simple truth makes everything much more complicated: Everybody has a valid point. The Hatfields shout, “Your family shot my uncle!” The McCoys reply, “Well, you folks hanged my father!”

And they’re both right.

And they’re both wrong.

They’re right that the other side did something bad, but they’re wrong that the first bad act justifies the second.

They’re also wrong because, outside of war, “sides” don’t really kill people; people kill people. If someone named Smith kills someone named Goldberg, I have no right to kill some different person named Smith, who did nothing wrong, simply because I happen to be a Goldberg, too.

Until now, I’ve been speaking mostly metaphorically. We’re not a failed state where competing coalitions visit bloody reprisals on each other. We’re not Ancient Rome either. But we’re getting closer. And you can tell by the way we’re talking.

In response to this still-unfolding crime, the overwhelming response from Democrats and most of the mainstream media is that this is all Donald Trump’s fault.

“Time and time again, the president has condoned physical violence and divided Americans with his words and his actions,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement Wednesday. “Expressing support for the congressman who body-slammed a reporter, the neo-Nazis who killed a young woman in Charlottesville, his supporters at rallies who get violent with protestors, dictators around the world who murder their own citizens, and referring to the free press as the enemy of the people.”

Trump’s calls for unity in response to mail-terror attacks “ring hollow,” they added. And they’re right.

Indeed, Trump seemed to demonstrate the hollowness the following morning in a tweet: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”

On one level, this tweet is loopy. We don’t know the motives of the bomb mailer yet, but it seems unlikely that he or she was sending explosive devices to Barack Obama, Robert De Niro and Representative Maxine Waters to teach the “fake news” a lesson. That would be some serious three-dimensional media criticism right there.

But Trump has a point, too. His “enemy of the people” rhetoric is irresponsibly hyperbolic, but it resonates with millions of people who have good reason to believe that much of the media has gone off the rails in its animosity toward Trump and toward Republicans generally.

More relevant, Trump’s most loyal defenders leapt to make the case that Schumer, Pelosi, and all of the Democrats and pundits blaming Trump for fomenting a climate of violence are hypocrites given the things they’ve said and done. Fox News host Sean Hannity had a furious monologue recounting all of the uncivil things Trump’s liberal critics have said, from Waters encouraging mobs to harass Republicans in public to Hillary Clinton saying civility isn’t an option for Democrats.

Put aside the asininity of acting as if the most pressing issue of the moment is liberal hypocrisy when bomb-laden packages are still being discovered. Hannity still has a point. Ricin was sent to Trump. GOP representative Steve Scalise was shot at a practice for a charity baseball game by a man motivated by liberal rhetoric.

The point is not about “whataboutism” or “both sides-ism.” As a conservative who is critical of Trump, the Democrats, and the mainstream media, I have no team here. The point is that everybody is using the real or perceived hypocrisy of the “other side” to justify their refusal to look squarely at their own side’s irresponsible words and deeds.

It’s obvious to me that Trump’s demonizing rhetoric, his inveterate lying, and his insinuations that his supporters are the only real Americans are dangerously irresponsible. His responsibilities as president of the whole country do not change regardless of what his critics say about him. But the reactions to Trump are often irresponsible, too. And saying “Trump is worse” doesn’t change that.

Yes, everybody is right. But that doesn’t mean everybody isn’t wrong, too.

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