WASHINGTON – The White House pushed back Thursday on a chorus of criticism from Democrats and academics suggesting President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail has created a charged political atmosphere that could inspire violence.
A day after police intercepted suspicious packages aimed at several of his political rivals, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders rejected the idea that the president is complicit in stirring up animosity directed at Democratic lawmakers and the media.
“The president is certainly not responsible for sending suspicious packages to someone, no more than Bernie Sanders was responsible for a supporter of his shooting up a Republican baseball field practice last year,” Sanders said, referring to a shooting in Virginia that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., critically injured.
Hours after police began finding packages mailed to former President Barack Obama, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and other frequent targets of Trump’s rhetorical barbs, the president delivered a markedly different rally address in Wisconsin in which he refrained from calling the media “fake” or blasting Democrats.
“Do you see how nice I’m behaving tonight?” Trump told supporters in Mosinee, Wisconsin. “This is like – have you ever seen this? We’re all behaving very well.”
Some experts in political rhetoric who have studied Trump’s words closely said the president is to blame for creating an environment where some supporters could take his remarks more seriously than others.
“It doesn’t have to trigger everybody, but you can’t predict who it will make violent,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric and an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University. “If you have a pervasive culture of weaponized communication, statistically, someone will be violent.”
Bryan Gervais, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said that generally “like-minded” incivility does not inspire anger or violence. In other words, most Trump supporters are rooting for Trump and the people most likely to get angry are the targets of his barbs – namely, Democrats.
“Political incivility doesn’t do that much to induce emotional reactions like anger – it’s usually the opposite,” Gervais said.
But there’s a big caveat to that understanding, he said: “It really depends on the individual.”
Trump turned his attention to the media Thursday, suggesting that the press is contributing to tensions that threaten to turn deadly.
“A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” Trump tweeted. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description.”
Even though CNN was one of the recipients of a suspicious device, Trump said that “the Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
“Time and time again, the president has condoned physical violence and divided Americans with his words and his actions,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Former CIA director John Brennan, who has sparred publicly with Trump and who was an intended target for one of the suspicious packages, said that Trump needs to “stop blaming others.”
“Look in the mirror,” he wrote on Twitter. “Your inflammatory rhetoric, insults, lies, & encouragement of physical violence are disgraceful. Clean up your act….try to act Presidential.”
“There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media,” Zucker said.