James Hodgkinson’s murderous attack on members of Congress last week makes it impossible to deny what has, in other respects, been apparent for some time: that a pall of vengeful violence hangs over the political union of the people of the United States. Who is responsible? GOP partisans quite understandably point to the demonstratively violent tenor of the frenzied antagonism that has characterized organized opposition to Donald Trump since the moment it became clear he would be the GOP’s nominee for President.
Of course, Trump’s opponents in the Democrat party have all along decried his harsh attacks against political and other opponents, which they contend have appealed to racism and xenophobia meant to tap the reservoir of violent antipathy still extant from America’s long history of both. To be sure, even if what they contend about Trump’s political deportment were simply true, they cannot point to even one murderous action taken, or even attempted, with support for Trump’s agenda as the motive. But the partisan, anti-Trump motive of Hodkinson’s attack is plainly in evidence.
However, what sensible basis is there for either side to hold the other responsible for what appear to be the actions of a man who was more than likely motivated by his own evil self-will—assuming that he was even mentally competent to be held responsible for it? Had he lived, that question would have been seriously investigated prior to, and probably during, his trial. The tit-for-tat charges and countercharges of deranged factionalism notwithstanding, the political society of the American people is predicated on self-government, by and through individual citizens and those they choose to represent them. The course prudently consistent with our political ethos is not to pretend Godlike, conclusive knowledge of how far the intemperate rhetoric of either side is responsible for a civic environment now slouching dangerously toward civil war.
Rather, the American way is to assume that James Hodgkinson was responsible for his own actions, while holding our elected representatives, in Congress and the White House, nonetheless responsible for theirs. Our elected representatives have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. According to its terms, the first goal for which the people of the United States ordain and establish that Constitution is “to form a more perfect union”. Political debate, undertaken with proper civility, is essential to that goal. Is it well served when our representatives let their rhetoric run riot because they think this serves their personal, factional, or partisan political ambitions? Donald Trump is at fault for doing so in his verbal fisticuffs with the political opponents, judges and bureaucrats who incur his wrath. So, too, the Democrats’ Congressional leaders are at fault for doing so in their distempered jousting against Trump’s policies and goals.
The members of the media do not generally recoil when they are described as the fourth branch of our self-government. Yet they now mostly reject the responsibility for civility in political debate that goes along with that estate. They seem content to let the freedom guaranteed by the First amendment destroy the pillar of liberty that will only stand firm when freedom is rightly employed. But how can it be right to draw no line between media products that attempt to nourish our judgment and good will as a people, with conscientiously verified facts and information; and scurrilous screeds that, however slyly disguised as personal commentary or entertainment, aim mainly to encourage vengeful brawling amongst us?
If, in our discussions, we discard the semblance of mutual good will, why should we expect our union as a people to survive? If our union as a people fails, how can we expect the Constitution established to perfect it, to endure? If our Constitution succumbs, how does the people of the United States avoid falling prey to the warfare of elitist factional powers, which has universally characterized human societies. In that warfare, the good intentions of the people are abused, and their vices ruthlessly exploited, all so that they may, more easily, be subdued and forcibly enslaved. This has been the usual fate of just about every experiment in self-government in human history. Major elements of our society’s elites now seem to be contriving to foment, aid or excuse just such exploitative and contentious disunion. Does it make sense simply to ignore the possibility that they envisage, for the self-government of the people of the United States, the same fate as ever before?