The 2016 US Presidential Elections seemed like a nightmare... until the 2018 midterm elections
On October 27th, Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns and committed a mass shooting of worshippers, killing 11 people and injuring multiple others. In a country that has had its fair share of mass shootings over the past several years, this ranks as amongst the deadliest attacks against the Jewish community to ever take place on US soil.
The attack took the lives of worshippers, both young and old, including 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, while a Holocaust survivor was fortunate enough to avoid this shooting as he was late to the congregation. When President Donald Trump visited Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the attack, rather than unequivocally condemning the attack, he went on to make the incident all about himself. The conversation surrounding the attack soon divided itself on partisan lines, with pro-gun activists providing their usual hollow ‘thoughts and prayers’ and refusing to term this a terrorist attack.
This attitude is of course in stark contrast to the growing calls from Trump and the Republican Party to clamp down on illegal immigration as they denigrate immigrants and members of the Democratic Party at all opportunities. The synagogue shooting sadly constitutes the growing number of incidents in America where conspiratorial rhetoric is having a tangible effect on public safety.
A few days before the shooting, prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with the popular media network CNN, were sent all sent pipe bombs in the mail. After a scramble amongst intelligence agencies and a brief manhunt, the man behind the bombs was arrested. Yet another incident that made the airwaves in the same time frame was the shooting of an African-American couple at a grocery store in Kentucky, which has been designated as a hate crime after the shooter unsuccessfully attempted to storm a nearby predominantly African-American church.
This unprecedented scale of violence has occurred in the backdrop of an intensifying midterm election campaign that has seen President Trump and the Republican Party resorting to fearmongering tactics in order to rile up the party base and prevent the Democrats from taking back power in the Congress. For instance, the election season has seen many Republican candidates rely on immigrant bashing rhetoric, warning their constituents that the Democratic party favours ‘open borders’ and is ‘soft on crime’, which are blatant racist dog whistles.
Further, candidates like Steve King of Iowa and Corey Stewart of Virginia have openly praised white nationalists, whilst the leadership of the Republican Party has failed – and often refused – to rein them in from their divisive rhetoric. The refusal to rein in far-right extremist propaganda can thus be contrasted to the hypocrisy of many in the US to immediately blame immigrants, both legal and undocumented, for petty crimes and their supposed ‘burden’ to the US economy.
President Trump himself has increasingly bolstered this tone by frequently talking about illegal immigrants coming to the US and railing against Democrats and liberal opponents at any and every available opportunity. He has also indulged in peddling conspiracy theories with more fervour in recent weeks by tweeting and constantly talking about the Central American migrant caravan that is making its way towards the American-Mexican border.
Even though the caravan faces no threat to the US, the president has made it a point to bring it up during campaign rallies, press conferences and tweets, and encouraged his aides to keep the topic front and centre during political talk shows. He then followed this by talking about sending up to 15,000 additional soldiers to the Mexican border to help border agencies – more than the soldiers America sent to fight the Islamic State. He then announced that he is considering signing an executive order that would revoke birthright citizenship.
Our military is being mobilized at the Southern Border. Many more troops coming. We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally. TURN AROUND!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 31, 2018
These recent actions and the rhetoric of hate have both in many ways contributed to the escalation in violence, with the perpetrators in the recent attacks all being influenced to a degree by the anti-Semitic, immigrant bashing, conspiratorial, and partisan rhetoric constantly propagated by the President of the United States and his party. After all, these perpetrators frequented Trump rallies or were part of the far-right circles on social media, leaving no doubt regarding their motivations and the influence of the political environment on them.
Such incidents have also been rising in frequency since Trump’s rise to power after the 2016 Election, and are unlikely to dissipate in the near future, even if the Democrats have a good midterm election and rein in some of Trump’s power.
Even if the Democrats succeed in the midterm, their victory will have to counteract the electoral losses for the Republican Party. An extensive campaign by the liberal political actors will be required, which focuses the public’s concern on substantive issues like healthcare, economic sustainability, rising inequality, climate change and the protection of civil liberties for marginalised groups. Only then can the Republican Party be forced to introspect and made to realise that their policies, actions and narratives have grave and dire consequences, not only for American democracy, but on the well-being of its diverse citizenry.