Who’s to Blame for Political Violence?

LA Times: Who’s to blame for political violence? My take on the Steve Scalise shooting.

The more we blame speech for violence, the more likely we are to use violence to stop speech.

On Wednesday morning, a Trump-hating Bernie Sanders volunteer shot five people at a Republican practice for the annual congressional baseball game. One of them was the third-ranking House Republican, Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise. We could blame Democrats and Sanders supporters for this crime, if we wanted to imitate past liberal tactics. But the rush to score partisan points by using incidents of violence to discredit your political opponents is not only all too common but also cheap and dishonest.

The blame for violent acts lies with the people who commit them, and with those who explicitly and seriously call for violence. People who just use overheated political rhetoric, or who happen to share the gunman’s opinions, should be nowhere on the list.

In 1995, Bill Clinton famously used Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City to tar Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh and turn the public against small-government Republicans. The 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords led to an orgy of Republican-blaming, mostly based on the fact that Sarah Palin had released a map of 20 vulnerable Democratic districts with a set of crosshairs to mark each target. Never mind that the shooter had never seen the map and turned out to have no Republican connections and few conservative-sounding ideas. (Scalise’s shooter, by contrast, used his social media account to endorse and spread partisan arguments).

Since President Trump’s inauguration, several House Republicans have been targets of violence. A woman was arrested for trying to run Tennessee Congressman David Kustoff off the road after a healthcare town hall; a man was arrested for grabbing North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer at a town hall; a 71-year-old female staffer for California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher was knocked out at a protest and the FBI arrested a man for making death threats against Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally.

Everyone can see that the political climate has gotten a lot nastier lately. Americans used to despise politicians they disagreed with; now they hate the people who vote for them. Fewer and fewer people can tolerate friendships with political adversaries, and polls show more and more Americans — yes, especially Democrats — have trouble respecting anyone who voted for the other candidate. Donating to the wrong cause can get your business boycotted, and a stray tweet can bring down the online rage mobs.

All the talk of “resistance” and “treason,” plus the apocalyptic rhetoric about the climate and healthcare, certainly doesn’t lower the country’s temperature. But drawing a line from rhetoric to violence will only make matters worse. Each half of the country deciding that the other half is literally responsible for murder will only deepen that divide.

Every political and religious cause will inevitably attract some zealots who take strong words too far. It’s fair to blame a movement for the violence it inspires if — and only if — its leaders actually, seriously urge and celebrate and perpetrate violent acts, as the leaders of groups like Islamic State do.

But even at a time when American political figures call each other fascists and traitors and rant about resisting tyranny, there remains a world of difference between our political factions and Islamic State. If you hear someone shoot their mouth off, just remember it’s still only their mouth.

The more we blame speech for violence, the more likely we are to use violence to stop speech. Blurring the lines between bullets and tweets eventually will leave us with more bullets. Nobody forced Scalise’s shooter to pick up a gun over politics; he did that himself. It cheapens the moral consequences of that decision to credit angry words with an assist.

Democracy and free speech need room for people to exaggerate and vent. It wasn’t right when Democrats blamed Republicans instead of the Arizona shooter for the Giffords attack, and it wouldn’t be right for Republicans to return the favor just to get even. Keep the blame where it belongs.

Let’s Normalize Trump

LA Times: Let’s Normalize Trump also in the Chicago Tribune

Trump thrives on attention, positive or negative; the more his craziest Tweets grab headlines and dominate the conversation, the more he’ll turn to his phone.

“Don’t normalize Trump.” That’s been a mantra for his critics since he won the Republican nomination. Everyone in Washington recognizes that President Trump is not “normal.” Some of the ways he’s not normal are good: He has open contempt for “the swamp” of D.C., its corruption, its polite fictions, its arrogant denizens and their disdain for the choices of ordinary citizens. But he is also a walking rejection of older, more important virtues: separation of powers, the rule of law, the value of truth, the virtue of learned expertise and education, modesty, even simple decency towards one’s fellow men and women. He’s a very big bull in a very big china shop, and some of the china is worth saving.

We shouldn’t pretend that some of the stranger things Trump does are normal. But he’s not going away anytime soon, and the more normal we can encourage him to be, the better off we all are. Republicans and Democrats alike should try to make this happen.

Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress proved that he can be normal when he puts his mind to it. His tone was widely viewed as “presidential,” and much of the speech could easily have been delivered by Barack Obama or George W. Bush with only modest alterations. Yet Trump reverted to abnormal form on Twitter four days later. First, he tweeted about being wiretapped by President Obama, apparently with no basis other than things he read on the Internet. He followed that up by taking a swipe at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure as host of “The Apprentice.” That should not have surprised us. At age 70, after four decades in the public eye, Trump is unlikely to change who he is; there’s no pivot on the horizon. But the more Trump is encouraged to be “State of the Union Trump,” and discouraged from kicking up unnecessary panics and controversies, the better.

Trump inner-circle radicals like White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon may see a political advantage in provoking endless, draining controversy. Democrats may calculate that the same dynamic helps them. They might both be right; both Obama and Bill Clinton, after all, capitalized on conflicts that helped the other party capture Congress while painting themselves as their party’s only hope. But Trump is still the commander in chief, and encouraging his worst instincts while paralyzing the government is bad for the country.

One way to encourage normalcy is to fully staff the administration. Trump is way behind on hiring staff (no sane White House goes a month without a communications director), and the Senate can prioritize confirming those people who get nominated, especially national security and foreign policy appointees. A full bureaucracy will give Trump more briefings, more orders to sign, more decisions to make, and leave him with less time and energy for kicking the beehive.

To clear the air, Senate Republicans and Democrats can also press forward with the Intelligence Committee investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, and ensure a full public report. Public confidence in our democratic system demands a full accounting that defuses conspiracy theories. The endless back-and-forth of anonymous leaks and wild speculation only poisons the climate even further, emboldens the worst instincts and elements on all sides, and breeds mistrust between policymakers and the intelligence community they need to inform them.

Democrats, for their part, should try tamping down the “resistance” rhetoric and the lazy Hitler comparisons and try to avoid public panics over every Tweet. Trump thrives on attention, positive or negative; the more his craziest Tweets grab headlines and dominate the conversation, the more he’ll turn to his phone for the quick fix of instant public controversy.

The media has a role to play, too. By all means, call out the specific examples of insanity and dishonesty when Trump forces his spokespeople to defend the indefensible, but don’t let it swallow coverage of the things the White House is actually doing, many of which are far more important. Get Sean Spicer, the press secretary, talking about things he can explain without “alternative facts” and that official Washington can debate in ordinary fashion. Remind people that government actually does things and isn’t just a reality show.

In encouraging Trump to be normal, Washington need not abandon its usual fault lines. Republicans don’t have to give up their big ambitions of using this moment to tame the administrative state. Democrats don’t have to stop opposing ordinary Republican priorities they disagree with, like tax cuts. Trump’s die-hard fans don’t have to abandon hope of Trump breaking with bipartisan conventional wisdom on trade, immigration and foreign policy. Those policy debates can and will continue. Trump’s voters wanted change, and some changes are in order, while others may be half-baked ideas worth stopping.

But the atmosphere of constant crisis and hyperbole is bad for the mental health of the nation and could lead us places we find it hard to return from. Let’s make America normal again.

Welcome Back, Blog!

I’ve been neglecting this blog rather badly for altogether too long – the archives say I haven’t posted here since September 21, 2014. I’ve been busy in the interim on Twitter, of course, and publishing elsewhere. I probably need to post archived versions of some of those posts here. For now: links.
I will start with The Weekly Standard, where I have this issue’s cover story, just posted today: Giving Thomas His Due, on Justice Thomas’ opinions over the past year and what they tell us about his philosophy. [ETA: Link to the archived original now available here, the print version here, and the live version at the Washington Examiner here]
The Federalist
Then there’s The Federalist, where I tend to post my longer essays these days. I ran a lengthy 5-part essay prior to the Obergefell decision, “Can Gays And Christians Coexist In America?”. Part I looked at the Biblical reasons why Christians believe in one-man-one-woman-for-life marriage. Part II looked at the history of Catholicism and other Biblical Christianity in the battles over slavery and Jim Crow. Part III looked at the Christian concept of scandal and the battle between liberty-based and equality-based views of “LGBT rights.” Part IV looked at the legal arguments over the rational basis for distinguishing between opposite-sex and same-sex marriage. And Part V traced possible ways forward for coexistence post-Obergefell, which admittedly are not looking especially promising at the moment.
The First Principle Of U.S. Foreign Policy looked at various approaches to our foreign policy.
Others from the fall, including some of my poll-analysis posts:
The Ferguson Riots Are Nothing Like The Original Tea Party Protests
Polling Postmortem: The Best And Worst Senate Polls Of 2014 (I keep meaning to run the companion piece on the Governors races before 2016 polling heats up).
Do Democrats Always Win Close Statewide Elections? (covers the 1998-2013 elections; I should update this with 2014 results).
Listening To President Obama’s Ebola Advice Could Get People Killed
And of course, if you missed it last time, my essay on how History Is Not On The Democrats’ Side In 2016 is still an important read on the coming election, undoubtedly the most significant piece I will write on the 2016 election.
The Rise & Fall of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina – I wrote this a few weeks back, but it’s very relevant to today’s news.
Reading Tea Leaves on the 2015 Supreme Court Term – Basically just some educated speculation on who would write what and when, which ended up having mixed results.
Democratic Party Now Literally Selling Hate – a Father’s Day gift post!
Bernie Sanders, Deodorant and Diversity – a meditation on central planning and markets.
Marco Rubio Recounts The History of Obama’s Treatment of Israel – quick hit on a great Rubio floor speech. Rubio isn’t my first choice in 2016, but he’s done nothing but impress this year.
From the fall:
2014 and Republican Morale – a GOP victory lap and a reflection on what it meant.
The Breakers Broke: A Look Back At The Fall 2014 Polls – A personal victory lap on my 2014 poll analysis and how it relates to the polling controversies of 2012.
The 2014 Polls And The 2012 Exit Polls – An earlier look at the same topic and at some specific issues with exit polling and poll methodology.
Nobody at Vox.com Has Read The Fourteenth Amendment
BREAKING: Supreme Court Takes Obamacare Subsidies Case (on King v Burwell).
First Cut: 7 Polling and Elections Lessons From 2014 (Immediate 2014 election aftermath)
Why I Voted Yes On Question 1 (NY) (Election Day post on a NY ballot initiative)
Final Senate Breakers & Governors Breakers Report November 3, 2014
Senate Breakers Report October 30, 2014
Governors Breakers Report October 30, 2014
A Sad and Desperate Attack on Chris Christie – Actually a fairly deep dive on voter fraud controversies.
Governors Breakers Report October 22, 2014
Senate Breakers Report October 21, 2014
Senate and Governors Breakers Report October 10, 2014
Senate Breakers Report and Governors Breakers Report: Oct 1
Introducing The Senate Breakers Report – September 26, 2014, the start of my Fall 2014 stretch drive when I started getting too busy to cross-post here.

Quoted in the Wall Street Journal

WSJ front page, “Senate Control Comes Down to Eight Races“:
Recent election data supports the belief that Democrats dominate in the closest races. Since 1998, Democrats won 13 of 16 Senate and governors’ races that were decided by one percentage point or less, according to a recent analysis by Dan McLaughlin, a lawyer, on the conservative website the Federalist.


On Tuesday, they tried to kill me.

I am ordinarily at my desk between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning, in my office on the 54th floor of one of the World Trade Center’s towers. Tuesday, I was running late – I stopped to vote in the primary election for mayor, an election that has now been postponed indefinitely. Thank God for petty partisan politics.

Around 20 minutes to 9, as I have done every day for the past five years, I got on the number 2/3 train heading to Park Place, an underground stop roughly a block and a half, connected underground, to the Trade Center. The train made its usual stop at Chambers Street, five blocks north of my office, where you can switch to the local 1/9 that runs directly into the Trade Center mall. The subway announcer – in a rare, audible announcement – was telling people to stay on the 2/3 because the tunnel was blocked by a train ahead of us. Then he mentioned that there had been “an explosion at the World Trade Center.”

Now, I grew up in the suburbs, so maybe I’m not as street smart as I should be, but after living in the city a few years, you develop a sense of the signs of trouble (like the time there were shots fired in the next subway car from mine). I didn’t know what the explosion was, maybe a gas leak or something, but I knew that I was better off getting above ground to see what was going on rather than enter the complex underground. So I got off the train to walk to work.

When I got above ground, there was a crowd gathering to see the horror above: a big hole somewhere in the top 15-20 stories of the north tower (having no sense of direction, I thought that was Number 2 at the time, not Number 1 where my office was), with flames and smoke shooting out. I quickly realized it would not be safe to go into the office, despite a number of things I had waiting for me to do, so as I heard the chatter around about there having been a plane crash into the building (onlookers were saying “a small plane” at that point) and a possible terrorist attack, I turned away to start looking for a place to get coffee and read the newspaper until I could find out what had happened. That was when it happened.

The sound was a large BANG!, the unmistakable sound of an explosion but with almost the tone of cars colliding, except much louder. My initial thought was that something had exploded out of the cavity atop the tower closer to us and gone . . . where? It was followed by a scene straight out of every bad TV movie and Japanese monster flick: simultaneously, everyone around me was screaming and running away. I didn’t have time to look and see what I was running from; I just took off, hoping to get away from whatever it was, in case it was falling towards us. Nothing else can compare to the adrenaline rush of feeling the imminent presence of deadly danger. And I kept moving north.

Once people said that a second plane had hit the other tower, and I saw it was around halfway up – right where my office was, I thought, still confused about which tower was which – it also appeared that the towers had survived the assault. I used to joke about this, telling people we worked in the only office building in America that had been proven to be bomb-resistant. I stopped now and then, first at a pay phone where I called my family, but couldn’t hear the other end. I stopped in a few bars, calling to say I was OK, but I still didn’t feel safe, and I kept moving north. In one bar I saw the south tower collapse, and had a sick feeling in my stomach, which increased exponentially when I saw Tower Number One, with my office in it and (so far as I knew) many of the people I work with as well, cave in. Official business hours start at 9:30, but I started reeling off in my head all the lawyers who get in early in the morning, and have for years. I thought of the guy who cleans the coffee machines, someone I barely speak to but see every day, who has to be in at that hour. I was still nervous, and decided not to think about anything but getting out alive. A friend has an apartment on 109th street, so I called him and kept walking, arriving on his doorstep around 1 p.m., and finally sat down, with my briefcase, the last remnant of my office. I had carried a bunch of newspapers and my brown-bag lunch more than 120 blocks. The TV was on, but only CBS was broadcasting – everyone else’s signal had gone out of the Trade Center’s antenna.

Finally, the news got better. I jumped when there were planes overhead, but they were F-15s, ours. American combat aircraft flying with deadly seriousness over Manhattan. My wife was home, and she had heard from people at the office who got out alive. It turns out that my law firm was extraordinarily lucky to get so many people out – nearly everyone is now accounted for, although you hold your breath and pray until it’s absolutely everyone. The architect who designed the towers – well, we used to complain a lot that the windows were too narrow, but the strength of those buildings, how they stayed standing for an hour and an hour and a half, respectively, after taking a direct hit by a plane full of gasoline – there are probably 10 to 15,000 people walking around New York today because they stayed up so long.


By Wednesday night, the adrenaline was finally wearing off, and I was just angry. They had tried to kill me, had nearly killed many of the people I work with, and destroyed the chair I sit in everyday, the desk I work at and the computer I do my work on. And that’s before you even begin to count the other lives lost. Words fail to capture the mourning, and in this area it’s everywhere. I finally broke down Thursday morning, reading newspaper accounts of all the firemen who were missing or dead, so many who had survived so many dangers before, and ran headlong into something far more serious, far more intentional. My dad was a cop, my uncle a fireman. It was too close.

The mind starts to grasp onto the little things, photos of the kids and from my wedding; the radio in my office that I listened to so many Mets games on, working late; a copy of my picture with Ted Williams (more on that some other day); the little Shea Stadium tin on my desk that played “take me out to the ballgame” when you opened it to get a binder clip, the new calculator I bought over the weekend. All vaporized or strewn halfway across the harbor. The things can mostly be replaced, they’re just things, but it’s staggering to see the whole context of your daily routine disappear because somebody – not “faceless cowards,” really, but somebody in particular with a particular agenda and particular friends around the world – wants you dead.


There’s a scene that comes to mind, and I’m placing it in the Lord of the Rings because that’s where I remember it, but feel free to let me know if I’ve mangled it or made it up. Frodo the hobbit has lived all his life in the Shire, where the world of hobbits (short, human-like creatures) revolves around hospitality and particular etiquette and family snobbery and all the silliest little things, silly at least in comparison to the great and dangerous adventure he finds himself embarked on. Aragorn, one of the Men, has been patrolling the area around the Shire for years, warding off invading creatures of all varieties of evil. Frodo asks Aragorn, eventually, whether he isn’t frustrated with and contemptuous of hobbits and the small, simple concerns that dominate their existence, when such dangers are all at hand. Aragorn responds that, to the contrary, it is the simpleness and even the pettiness of the hobbits that makes the task worthwhile, because it’s proof that he has done his job – kept them so safe and insulated from the horrors all around them that they see no irony, no embarrassment in concerning themselves with such trivial things in such a hazardous world. It has often struck me that you could ask no better description of the role of law enforcement and the military, keeping us so safe that we may while our days on the ups and downs of made-up games.


And that’s why baseball still matters. There must be time for mourning, of course, so much mourning, and time as well to feel secure that 55,000 people can gather safely in one place. The merciful thing is that because, save for the Super Bowl and the Olympics, U.S. sports are so little followed in the places these evildoers breed – murderous men, by contrast, have little interest in pennant races – that they have not acquired the symbolic power of our financial and military centers. But that may not be forever.

But once we feel secure to try, we owe it most of all to those who protect us as well as those who died to resume the most trivial of our pursuits. Our freedom is best expressed not when we stand in defiance or strike back with collective will, but when we are able again to view Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as the yardsticks by which we measure nastiness, to bicker over games. That’s why the Baseball Crank will be back. This column may be on hiatus for an undetermined time while the demands of work intrude – we intend to be back in business next week, and this will not be without considerable effort – but in time, I will offer again my opinion of why it would be positively criminal to give Ichiro the MVP, and why it is scandalous that Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall of Fame. And then I’ll be free again.