By Robert Reich
Demagogues rarely commit violence directly. Instead, they use blame, ridicule, fear and hate – and then leave the violence to others. That way, they can always claim “it wasn’t me. I don’t have blood on my hands.”
Of the tens of millions of Americans that the Trump-Fox News regime has made fearful, only a small percentage – say, a hundred thousand – have been moved to hate the objects of that fear.
And of those hundred thousand, only a relative handful – say, a few thousand – have been motivated to act on that hate, posting loathsome messages online, sending death threats, spray-painting swastikas.
And of that few thousand, a tiny subset, perhaps no more than a hundred or so, have been moved to violence.
But make no mistake: This lineage of cause and effect begins with Trump and his Fox News propaganda machine.
Politicians and media moguls have long understood that fear and hate sell better than hope and compassion, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise. But before Trump, no president had based his office on it. And before Fox News, no major media outlet had based its ratings on it.
Ronald Reagan stoked racism by bashing “welfare queens” and George W. Bush by airing campaign ads featuring “Willie Horton,” but fear and hate weren’t the centerpieces of either presidency.
The two political operatives behind these campaigns bear mention, though: Lee Atwater, who had also been chairman of the Republican National Committee and a senior partner at the political consulting firm of Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly (yes, that Manafort and that Stone); and Roger Ailes, who went on to create and run Fox News.
Atwater and Ailes premised their careers on fear and hate. Ailes’s Fox News monetized fear and hate through phantom menaces like a “terror mosque” near Ground Zero, Barack Obama’s alleged connections to black nationalists and Muslims, and Sarah Palin’s fictitious “death panels.”
Trump took Atwater and Ailes to their logical extremes – building a political base by suggesting Obama wasn’t born in America; launching his presidential campaign by warning of “criminals” and “rapists” streaming across the Mexican border; and ending his campaign with an ad suggesting that prominent Jews — billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Fed Chair Janet L. Yellen — were in league with Hillary Clinton to control the world.
Since taking office, Trump has ramped up fear and hatred – towards immigrants, journalists, black athletes who won’t stand for the anthem, major media, and prominent Democrats.
In recent weeks he suggested that criminals and terrorists from the Middle East had joined a caravan of immigrants heading toward the border, and even floated a conspiracy theory that Soros helped fund the caravan.
Fox News has magnified the fear and hate exactly as its founder would have wanted. A guest on Lou Dobbs’ show claimed the caravan was being funded by the “Soros-occupied State Department.”
That same week, Soros was among the targets of pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and members of the media. A Florida man who identifies himself as a Trump supporter was arrested in connection with the attempted bombings.
Hours before a gunman entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed eleven worshipers, he reportedly wrote that a Jewish organization for refugees “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Bombs mailed to political leaders. Threats against the media. A shooting in a place of worship. None were directly ordered by Trump or his propaganda affiliate. They didn’t have to be.
Trump’s demagoguery inspired it. Fox News magnified it.
The hatefulness is unconstrained. Having fired the few “adults” in his Cabinet, Trump is now loose in the White House, except for a few advisors who reportedly are trying to protect the nation from him.
House and Senate Republicans are not holding him back. To the contrary, they have morphed into his sycophants. An increasing number are sounding just like him.
Atwater and Ailes are gone from this world, but their descendants – Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Bill Shine, formerly Roger Ailes’s deputy – have direct pipelines to Trump (Shine is now formally installed in the West Wing).
The upcoming election is not really a choice between Republicans and Democrats. Those traditional labels have lost most of their meaning, if not much of their value.
It is really a choice about the moral compass of America.