Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
Anyone who wonders about the link between hateful threats and actual violence was given something serious and grave to think about this week. Authorities found several pipe bombs delivered to people and organizations that for years have been on the receiving end of a flood of right-wing hate speech.
First it was billionaire philanthropist George Soros: A pipe bomb was found on Monday in his mailbox in Westchester County, New York. On Wednesday, bombs were mailed to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, former attorney general Eric Holder, and CNN’s offices in Manhattan. The CNN bomb was addressed to Obama administration CIA Director John Brennan. (Only the one directed at Soros, who as a private citizen does not have Secret Service protection, arrived at its destination; the others were intercepted by law enforcement).
We don’t know who did this, though authorities suspect all the devices were made by the same person or group. It’s a sad commentary on our times that the motivations could be multiple. Sowing or threatening violence in many places over a short space of time is a classic tactic of terrorists, and others who wish to destabilize society – for example, ahead of an important political event.
The midterm elections, coming up in less than two weeks, fit this bill. Republican Party efforts at voter suppression have made for a tense climate that President Donald Trump has worsened by insinuating that Democrats, whom he calls an “angry, leftist mob,” may commit voter fraud.
The charge recalls the starring role of hate speech – and repeated allusions to violence – that have characterized Trump as a candidate and President. Who can forget Trump, in 2016, pretending to pull a trigger as he “joked” about “Second Amendment people” acting against Clinton, or elected Republican officials like Oklahoma State Rep. John Bennett and New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro calling for her execution?
Just a few days ago the President mimicked, admiringly, Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte’s 2017 body-slamming of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. “That’s my kind of guy,” exulted Trump, who last December retweeted a meme of himself with a bloodied CNN logo on the bottom of his shoe and, earlier, a video of him wrestling to the ground a man with a CNN logo for a head. If we go back further to his days on the campaign trail, when Trump offered to pay legal fees for anyone arrested for roughing up protesters, and early in his presidency, when he cautioned law enforcement officers against “being too nice” to suspects, a consistent theme of encouraging violence emerges.
On Wednesday, Trump emphasized that “threats or acts of political violence” have no place in America and said that “in these times, we need to unify.” That’s true. But it’s also true that with hate-chants against CNN a standard feature of Trump rallies, it would be hard for the President to make his apparent feelings about CNN deserving some kind of punishment any clearer.
As constitutional lawyer Laurence Tribe tweeted, every recipient of the bombs “has been a target of Trump’s vicious comments at his raucous rallies. He didn’t light the fire, of course, and he’s condemning it, but he brought the kindling and the matches.”
And in fact, we can’t attribute any direct responsibility for the bombings to Trump: His White House, through press secretary Sarah Sanders, condemned the “terrorizing acts,” and Trump stated that he “fully agrees” with Vice President Mike Pence’s denunciation, via tweet, of the bombings as “cowardly actions.”
Yet the inclusion of Soros among the bomber’s targets appears to indicate that this attempt at violence is meant to at least appear to connect to a larger right-wing crusade against “globalists” – long a code word for Jews like Soros – which Trump has embraced. It’s hard to find a figure more demonized by the global right than Soros, an investor, philanthropist and Democratic funder who has devoted much of his fortune and time to defending democracy in Europe.
Soros’ placement on an apparently equal footing with Obama and Clinton as a target of these bombings may not give us a direct diagnosis of motivation for these threatening acts – again, we don’t know why they happened – but it does remind us that the global right has a foothold in our own country, thanks to elected officials like Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who have become propagandists for foreign right-wing “anti-globalists” like Vladimir Putin.
Authoritarians know that unrest and fright bring a desire for order, and they are always ready to step in, sometimes with special government measures, to “calm things down.”
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That is another reason to hope that the bomber (or bombers) is brought to justice and the more reasonable elements within the GOP take a second look at the real-life consequences of the hate speech that has overtaken their party. On this issue, breaking with Trump would truly be a civic duty, and one that might save American lives and democracy in the future.