When, in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to pay the legal fees incurred by his supporters who engaged in violence on his behalf, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton accused the president of “inciting violence.” They had a point. Even if Trump’s agitation was not prosecutable, it was reckless and arguably contributed to the climate of violence that typified 2016.
When a deranged Trump fan mailed explosive devices to the president’s critics in media, politics, and entertainment, media outlets did a deep dive into the presidential rhetoric that could have inspired these potentially deadly actions. Only two months earlier, the United Nations human rights chief contended that Trump’s anti-media rhetoric was “very close to incitement to violence.”
When Donald Trump attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar for erroneously claiming that the Council on American-Islamic Relations was founded in response to the 9/11 attacks “because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties,” the president was accused of “inciting violence.” “The president’s words weigh a ton, and his hateful and inflammatory rhetoric creates real danger,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
No politician is directly responsible for the criminal actions of the individuals who support them, but those who demand more prudence from the president and his party are justified in doing so. Rhetoric matters. Politicians who do not vigorously condemn anti-social or violent acts committed in the name of their preferred causes risk radicalizing their more unstable admirers. The press, too, is correct to hold the president to account for his rhetorical transgressions. And yet, America’s self-styled arbiters of responsible political discourse have not policed the left with anything resembling the energy they devote to the right. Their lethargic reaction to insurrectionary activities committed by those on the left strikes an ugly contrast.
Early Saturday morning, police in Tacoma, Washington killed a man in a shootout. Armed with a rifle and incendiary devices, the suspect, 69-year-old Willem van Spronsen, attacked an immigration detention facility in an attempt to ignite a large propane tank on the premises. The self-described anarchist and defender of the violent left-wing amalgam Antifa preemptively defended his violence in a written letter to friends, declaring his intention to “take action against the forces of evil” who were operating “concentration camps.”
This recklessly incendiary language is familiar. Describing the overcrowded and stressed detention facilities where illegal migrants await due process as “concentration camps” has become a staple rhetorical device among the Democratic Party’s activist wing. Authors, “experts,” politicians, and media figures with a moral aversion to the deteriorating conditions in these facilities endorsed this wildly excessive bombast even as skeptical observers warned that hyperbole of this kind has the potential to radicalize. The skeptics appear to have been right.
An impromptu shrine has sprouted up around the ground where van Spronsen died. His violent actions were lionized as a “child-liberation attempt” by the actor Clifton Collins Jr. and hailed by columnist Shaun King as the actions of a “martyr,” likened to the work of van Spronsen’s hero, John Brown. These prominent figures are only expressing sentiments shared understandably by many in the left’s grassroots. After all, they have only taken the logic of the claim that these facilities represent morally intolerable crimes against human dignity to its ultimate conclusion. As of this writing, the authors of the “concentration camp” indulgence have not been held to account for their immoderation by anyone in the mainstream press. The political press’s incuriosity speaks volumes.
The disparity in how national media outlets handle the question of “incitement” by political figures has become intolerably lopsided. More conventional center-right media outlets are routinely made to confront their complicity in creating an environment that incubates hate and paves the way for violence. Center-left media venues somehow manage to evade that kind of scrutiny though they certainly deserve it. As I wrote the last time a mob of aggravated left-wing demonstrators attacked reporters and public servants under the ironic auspices of combatting fascism, these spasms of violence do not take place in a vacuum:
Mark Bray, a Dartmouth College historian and the author of Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street, explained that Antifa’s purpose is to “preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts.” As a movement, it “rejects the liberal notion that fascism is a school of thought worthy of open debate and consideration.” Writing in praise of Antifa’s “militant left-wing and anarchist politics,” the Nation’s Natasha Lennard mocked “civility-fetishizing” liberals who “cling to institutions.” Presumably, she meant institutions like the right of objectionable elements to peaceable assembly, or, in her words, “predictable media coverage decrying Antifa militancy.” Animated by the increased visibility of white nationalism in the Trump era, Mother Jones published a less-than-condemnatory profile of the resolve of “left-wing groups” to resist white supremacy, which “sometimes goes beyond nonviolent protest—including picking up arms.”
This trend has not abated in the interim. CNN personality W. Kamau Bell recently hosted a similarly hagiographical profile of armed and menacing left-wing organizations. It featured, according to Fox News Channel’s reporting, none other than Willem van Spronsen.
America’s responsible voices of moderation and tolerance cannot succumb to complacency. They cannot settle into a comfortable myopia in which the president represents a singular threat to national comity even as Trump supporters are beaten in the streets, reporters are mauled in view of police, and Republicans are targeted for assassination by infotainment addicts. In an age of increasing right-wing violence, some will dismiss this as false equivalence, but those who are not radicalized themselves should be able to recognize responsible consistency when they see it.
If it’s in service to a preferred political outcome, the disequilibrium that distinguishes news cycles involving politicians who’ve allegedly engaged in “incitement to violence” is nothing short of corruption. An internal audit is long overdue. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a more successful act of violence than the one that occurred in Tacoma to inaugurate it.