(Anti-semitic white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, August 2018, photo credit)
There’s a particularly disturbing political ad running on WTOP radio these days, appearing often enough that the words really get into your head. According to this ad, Democrats are “an unhinged angry mob of thugs” who promote all kinds of lawlessness and evil, described in extremely ugly and provocative language in the ad. The person narrating the ad is none other than Corey Stewart, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Virginia. I don’t live in Virginia, and who Virginians elect to the Senate is their business. But an aspiring U.S. Senator should be ashamed to use this kind of fearmongering rhetoric — but shame seems to be in short supply these days among leading politicians.
Shame is not an emotion that the current president of the United States ever seems to feel. His name-calling, race-baiting, press-bashing hateful rhetoric is well documented. Following the large lawful protests over the nomination of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the president and his allies on Capitol Hill have resorted to accusing Democrats of encouraging “mob rule,” a rhetorical device intended to inflame the right-wing base of voters. The “mob rule” meme also applies to the shameful rhetoric about “the caravan” of penniless, homeless, desperate refugees migrating from Central America through Mexico, a movement that reflects the hope that the United States still offers the poor and powerless of this world. But the president and his friends have denounced this movement of refugees as another kind of “mob” and claimed — with “no proof” as the president readily admits — that the caravan harbors terrorists from the Middle East (thus also playing into the hateful stereotype of terrorists as swarthy Middle Eastern people — except for the wealthy Middle Eastern potentates with whom the president does business even as they apparently murder a journalist, but that’s another whole blog). The “mob rule” meme and the “caravan” claims come together in the claim rampant on insidious rightwing websites and media outlets, encouraged by the president, that global philanthropist George Soros is funding the caravan, funded the Kavanaugh protests and other liberal causes. Soros is Jewish, and invocation of his name triggers voluminous anti-semitic bile.
In a week that started with a mail bomb sent to the Soros mailbox, and then more than a dozen similar packages mailed to prominent people who oppose the president including former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others — a week that included the murder of two black patrons at a Kroger’s in Kentucky in an apparent hate crime — a week that culminated in the murders of 11 Jewish congregants at a synagogue in Pittsburgh — in just this past week we have seen the truth about mob rule: the mob is gathered already in some of the darkest places of our nation, and the mob is aching for extreme and catastrophic violence. The events of this week are not the culmination, but rather, clear and urgent warning signs. The potential for widespread acts of murder and profound civil disorder is real and must not be dismissed.
The “mob” is not the caravan of desperate refugees. The “mob” is not the advocates and activists who speak out for justice for immigrants and Dreamers, who stand up for people who are beaten down by an immigration system that is badly broken. The “mob” is not the legitimate protest activity of citizens, predominantly women, who are sick and tired of being demonized, trivialized, ignored and oppressed by politicians who treat women as objects of scorn, or worse, as easy targets of abuse. The mob is not the courageous groups of young people protesting against gun violence and demanding an end to the proliferation of guns in this country. The “mob” is not that group of people who voted for a different candidate for president, who hold views that are different, who want different results from what the president dictates, who want to hold the president accountable for his performance and behavior. Members of the opposite political party are not the “mob” despite what Candidate Corey Stewart’s ad proclaims.
The real mob that we must confront urgently and with moral conviction is that group of people who are motivated by hate — people who have murderous antipathy toward people of other races, religions, languages and nationalities, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics. The real mob rears its ugly head every time a white person accuses and berates (or worse, shoots) a black person just going about his or her business, or accosts a person speaking Spanish in a grocery and tells them to “go back to your country,” or confronts a Muslim or Jew and hurls epithets and threats, or blocks a transgender person from using a bathroom.
The members of this mob, like most mobs, are not organized and may or may not know each other. They are dangerous because they are a large collection of lone actors who all share some common features — hatred for people not like them, an obsession with conspiracy theories about our country and major public figures, susceptibility to fearmongering rhetoric by politicians, and a love affair with guns. Guns. So many guns. Arsenals, really. The more virulent the hatred, the bigger the arsenal. All the members of the mob need is the trigger to unleash their fury.
The president of the United States is, unfortunately, a master at playing with the trigger. He uses language that incites the mob to action. He attacks and berates everyone and anyone who disagrees with him. He demonizes the opposition, he calls the media the “enemy of the people” constantly, he praises people who assault and abuse others. Just days before the murders of 11 people in the Pittsburgh synagogue, the president declared, “I am a Nationalist,” surely something he must know invites Nazi comparisons. He expresses contempt for “globalists” which is a thinly-veiled attack on Soros and other wealthy financiers, mostly Jewish. Never have we seen a national leader so lacking in self-control, rational public conduct, temperate rhetoric. It’s easy to tell when he’s reading a statement someone else wrote for him, the words come slowly and without inflection. When he speaks from his own heart, the words are often cheap shots, violent, degrading others, mocking. Words of kindness, empathy, sympathy, compassion, fairness, hope are almost never spoken.
Washington Post Columnist Julia Ioffe has an excellent piece today asking the question: How much responsibility does Trump bear for the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh? She writes, “The president did not tell a deranged man to send pipe bombs to the people he regularly lambastes on Twitter and lampoons in his rallies, so he’s not at fault. Trump didn’t cause another deranged man to tweet that the caravan of refugees moving toward America’s southern border (the one Trump has complained about endlessly) is paid for by the Jews before he shot up a synagogue. Trump certainly never told him, “Go kill some Jews on a rainy Shabbat morning.” But this definition of culpability is too narrow, too legalistic — and ultimately too dishonest. The pipe-bomb makers and synagogue shooters and racists who mowed a woman down in Charlottesville were never even looking for Trump’s explicit blessing, because they knew the president had allowed bigots like them to go about their business… His role is just to set the tone. Their role is to do the rest.”
Vice President Pence has said that the president’s rhetoric has nothing to do with the wave of violence that besets our nation. He is wrong. Like it or not, President Trump is our national leader, and as the leader, he has profound responsibility for shaping the current mindset of our society. That’s what power really does.
The late John Gardner, founder of Common Cause and a leading social thinker, wrote the best definition of public leadership responsibilities in his 1968 book No Easy Victories: “Leaders have a significant role in creating the state of mind that is the society. They can serve as symbols of the moral unity of the society. They can express the values that hold the society together. Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in the pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts….We do need men and women in every community in the land who will accept a special responsibility to advance the public interest, root out corruption, combat injustice and care about the continued vitality of this land. We need such people to help us clarify and define the choices before us. We need them to symbolize and voice and confirm the most deeply rooted values of our society…We need them to rekindle hope….The first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive — the hope that we can finally find our way through to a better world…” (No Easy Victories, 1968, p. 134)
Our current national crisis is a crisis of violence and hatred, yes, but also a crisis of leadership. We do not have the kind of leadership that Gardner describes, quite the opposite. Rather than kindling hope, our president instigates rage and fear and hatred. Rather than promoting moral unity, our president sows discord and division. Rather than helping us to clarify our values, our president displays a shocking lack of respect for essential values like justice, fairness, respect for every person, a disposition to service to others, helping those most in need.
If our president were a reflective person, which he seems not to be, after the horrific tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, he might have sought out a local chapel to sit in quiet meditation for a few hours to reflect on his own role and responsibility for the horrors borne once again by innocent people as a result of bigotry and hatred run rampant, conditions that are fostered by the turgid rhetoric of our political leadership. He might have prayed for the wisdom to find the right words to comfort the families, but also, to lead the nation in a time of grief. A few moments of quiet reflection might have helped him to avoid saying stupid things like we should have armed guards in our churches, or the people at the synagogue were killed because they didn’t have guns among them, or that the death penalty would stop this madness. Stupid, insensitive, and wrong.
If he were at all a spiritual person, he would reflect on the meaning of the Tree of Life, the sad irony that the synagogue where the shootings took place carried that name, and the responsibility that even a secular leader carries to promote the most life-giving parts of human existence while doing everything in his power to defeat whatever diminishes and ruins the hope and promise of human society.
As citizens of this democracy, all of us must take the time for similar reflection, and in those moments to develop the determination to take action. Against the ugly, hateful, murderous mobs, we must be a force for good, for hope, for justice for those who are so afflicted in so many ways by the hate. We must find the strength to stay engaged for the sake of this nation’s future. Ultimately, individual political leaders move on, though certainly they can leave plenty of damage behind them. But the glory of this nation is the fact that We the People have carried on for 230 years across many times of challenge, conflict, war and domestic violence, slavery and racial oppression, economic misery and political chicanery. The United States is far from a perfect union or perfect state, but it remains the best hope for human advancement on this small planet. Our job is to pick our leaders wisely, to push them toward the right choices for governance, and to remove them if they cannot do the job well. We must VOTE in every single election.
Once again, we pray for the dead. And we must keep fighting like hell for the living.
Let’s remember those who died at the Tree of Life synagogue with the traditional Jewish prayer of remembrance:
At the rising sun and at its going down; We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter; We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring; We remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer; We remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn; We remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends; We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as We remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength; We remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart; We remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make; We remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share; We remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs; We remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as, We remember them.
Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer, New Prayers for the High Holy Days (Media Judaica, Ins., 1970) edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, p. 36(Tree of Life, Tiffany Glass)