My heart goes out to the people killed and injured at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and their families.
We live in unexpectedly dangerous times. Election periods are times when weak democracies with troubled civic discourse are particularly vulnerable to violence.
People living in a weak democracy know too well that dangerous rhetoric leads to dangerous consequences. While we may not be accustomed to thinking of our democracy as weak, the United States is experiencing these consequences right now in what has been several days of pre-election violence, including the largest massacre of Jews in this country’s history, and bombs sent to members of President Donald Trump’s political opposition.
These dangerous times began during the 2016 presidential campaign, brought about by a candidate and the far right who engaged in political discourse to whip up anger, fear and distrust.
The consequences of this discourse were immediately obvious, even in my normally quiet Washington, DC neighborhood. First up was the viral hoax claiming that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria just a few blocks south of my house. Fueled by right-wing extremists, including the son of the president’s soon to be (briefly) National Security Council chief Michael Flynn, it inspired a young Salisbury, North Carolina father armed with an AR-15 assault rifle to charge into the restaurant and begin firing on a busy afternoon. Fortunately no one was killed. Five blocks the other direction, white supremacist’s Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute threw an election victory party at an Italian chain restaurant, where an attendee proudly tweeted a selfie making the Hitler salute. Around that time, my husband found an anti-Semitic flyer on the sidewalk near our house. As I took my daily walk, I saw swastikas painted on mailboxes.
It should come as no surprise that in the run-up to our first national election since 2016, we are experiencing a heightened blast of nationalist anger, manifested in anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish, anti-black, anti-minority rhetoric and violence. This time, the man whipping them up has the ultimate bully pulpit.
Whether President Trump is aware or not, whether he cares or not, whether he is doing this deliberately or not—and I have no way of knowing—he and his echo chamber are responsible for motivating people to commit violence. He needs to cease all nationalistic rhetoric right now. Cease holding rallies. Cease feeding conspiracy theories. He needs to do this for all Americans, not just for Jews and political adversaries, who are predictably the first targets of violence.
This is more important than winning an election. It may already be too late. This kind of rhetoric, once injected into the political atmosphere, can persist for years. I hope it won’t, but as Jews we know that prejudice can take decades, centuries, even millennia to recede.
I see that the president has said he will travel to Pittsburgh. He should not go. What kind of message will he send to the nation? I can imagine that the teleprompter will have all the right words and that he will speak them calmly, even respectfully. But as we have seen, even when he reads the right words, they are empty, devoid of the compassion, of the empathy, of the understanding needed to give them meaning in order to reach the people who need to be reached.
The midterms are but a week away, and given that Trump is unlikely to transform into a different man, we need to prepare ourselves for the real possibility of more violence. We the people need to fully participate in our democracy, which includes staying true to our values. And voting early or on election day so that we can strengthen our democracy.