Representative Joaquin Castro (D., Texas) seemed shocked and surprised this week when he became the focus of a firestorm of criticism. Castro, the twin brother of former San Antonio mayor and current presidential candidate Julian Castro, seemed more befuddled than embarrassed or angry when called to account for his decision to tweet out the names of 44 Trump donors who live in his San Antonio district.
It wasn’t only that, as he correctly stated, basic information about people who donate to federal campaigns is public and accessible to anyone who knows how to navigate federal websites. It was that he didn’t seem to have any idea why anyone would think he had crossed a line by exposing local Trump supporters to public opprobrium in this manner.
After all, many, if not most, Democrats argue that Trump and by extension his supporters are not merely wrong when it comes to policy and rhetoric; they’re also active supporters of white-nationalism and responsible for mass murder. So Castro can hardly be blamed for thinking it was smart to name and shame area residents who are funding such evil. And, indeed, many on the left supported Castro’s tweet.
So perhaps it’s a hopeful sign that there is still sufficient support for the old rules of civility that Castro did receive some pushback about his tweet, not only from Republicans but also from some in the media, including MSNBC’s Willie Geist and the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman. They noted that Trump donors on Castro’s list could be targeted for harassment or even violence. When pressed on the issue on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Castro avowed that he hadn’t intended such an outcome; he merely wanted to “start a discussion” about the consequences of supporting Trump.
In a twist, it happens that three of the people on the list of those who had given the maximum amount to Trump had also donated to Castro or his brother, which shows just how problematic donor-shaming can be. Another three told the Washington Examiner that they had donated to Julian Castro’s campaigns in the past. Many Americans, especially those rich enough to max out their donations, often spread the wealth around and don’t limit their support to one party. This fact, like the availability of the donor info, is not a secret.
The Castro kerfuffle raises the possibility that donors, whether Republicans or Democrats, might be better off contributing so-called dark money to political groups that are non-profits and therefore not required to reveal details about their contributors. In today’s harsh political climate, when you give directly to a candidate — exercising your First Amendment right to engage in political speech and activity — you are exposing yourself to potential harassment and violence.
But, as with the various incidents in the past year when conservatives such as Senator Ted Cruz or former White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders were harassed or denied service in public places by angry liberals, this isn’t so much about campaign finance. It’s about the way Americans now view their political opponents.
Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign gaffe in which she declared that half of Trump supporters were “irredeemable” and belonged in a “basket of deplorables” perfectly encapsulated the contempt that she felt for her opponent and his voters. Given that she voiced the basket-of-deplorables notion twice in September 2016, it was probably not a slip of the tongue but a tactic that Clinton and her team thought would separate the “bad” Trump supporters from the “good” one whose votes they might win. At the time, however, pundits widely agreed that her comments were apt to increase Republican support for Trump.
The aftermath of the El Paso shooting shows that today, among most liberals and Democrats, it’s the norm to deride Trump supporters as deplorable.
Trump has coarsened public discourse and made abusive comments about his opponents and illegal immigrants — often in response to attacks on him — but is he a racist? Liberal pundits now state this as a fact rather than a matter of dispute. Likewise, many are taking as a given the even more dubious assertion that Trump inspired the El Paso shooter and other white nationalists. This despite the fact that Trump has repeatedly condemned such violence and that the murderer’s online “manifesto” makes clear that he was both insane and that his views were not specifically inspired by Trump. He rails against “unchecked corporations,” for instance, and frets about urban sprawl, plastic waste, and oil drilling.
But, post–El Paso, many Democrats are drawing a moral equivalence between mass murder and the stance that Trump and his supporters take toward illegal immigration.
One can be alarmed by the surge of illegals crossing the border, and one can even use the word “invasion” to describe it, without wishing to engage in mass murder. But that possibility has been thrown to the winds in the effort to demonize Trump and connect the dots supposedly connecting Republicans and atrocities.
It would be foolish to think that this kind of judgmental attitude would or could be confined to attitudes about Trump.
It is axiomatic that in a country where people on the left and the right no longer access the same media, common ground is shrinking. This has gotten worse as social media has become the main source of news for many if not most Americans — leaving most citizens in an ideological cocoon of their own making. It is no longer a leap for most of us to assume that our political opponents don’t merely support bad policies but actually want awful outcomes. And if you think that Trump is evil incarnate rather than just wrong, his supporters become the moral equivalent of Germans voting for Adolf Hitler. Or they’re at least as bad as people who supported racial segregation in the Jim Crow era.
In this environment, both small-dollar and high-dollar donors to campaigns become vulnerable to silencing and harassment, as already happened with those who supported the successful campaign for California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages. Anyone who expresses politically unacceptable wrongthink — whether it’s about supporting Trump or anyone on the right — is now eligible for public shaming and perhaps even attacks.
In this way, public threats against conservatives — such as the “murder turtle” threat that demonstrators recently chanted outside the home of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — become routine rather than outrageous.
Trump bears some responsibility for this — for his manner of speech and his appetite for causing outrage and trolling his opponents. But the violent denunciations of him — and now of all his supporters — have taken us into a new era of political warfare. The goal now is not to persuade opponents to change their votes; it’s to make clear that supporting the “wrong side” renders you unworthy of even minimal respect.
It would be comforting to think that Castro’s tweet is a turning point that will inspire both parties to step back from the brink and return to a more civilized manner of political warfare. But the anger at Trump and the conviction on the part of many liberals that he and his supporters really are white supremacists who are responsible for mass shootings has created a new template for political discourse. There may be no turning back.
If so, this would mark not just the death of civility. The real danger is that declaring political foes to be illegitimate is incompatible with the basic rules of American democracy, which require us to accept, albeit grudgingly, the election victories of our opponents. What will follow during the course of the 2020 campaign could make Castro’s tweet seem like a church picnic.