Our fraught electoral contest with its vicious personalized attacks is devoid of decency.
This reached a fever pitch recently at the Republican National Convention where Hillary Clinton was condemned as a murderer and a traitor, deserving of execution. Supporters of Donald Trump, recently joined by elements of Bernie Sanders’ supporters in Philadelphia, insisted that Clinton be “locked up.” This month, Trump abandoned any pretense: “She’s the devil,” he told a crowd in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, a video of Trump supporters spewing violent profanities has raced across the internet.
As the final 100 days tick away, it’s important to appreciate the possible consequences of this type of toxic discourse. It’s sobering and instructive to look to another pivotal political moment, in another fractious and imperfect democracy, Israel.
In September 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government announced its intention to fulfill the Oslo II agreements with the Palestinian Authority, giving the Palestinian Authority control of West Bank cities. It provoked vehement protests over whether this would compromise Israeli security and whether the ceding of territory many considered sacred betrayed core religious imperatives. The protests were marked by a drum beat of venomous personal attacks directed at Rabin. Zealous and frenzied protesters chanted “Death to Rabin” and brandished posters of him in the cross-hairs of a rifle scope. They called Rabin a murderer and depicted him in a Nazi uniform.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition Likud party and Rabin’s main political rival, vigorously denounced the Oslo initiatives at a series of large rallies, which some warned him would lead to violence.
On Nov. 4, Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old Orthodox Jewish Israeli law student, shot and killed Rabin in a Tel Aviv parking lot. Rabin had just finished addressing a rally. Inspired by his extreme religious beliefs, and reinforced by a zeitgeist of hatred and personal denigration, Amir was convinced that Rabin’s extrajudicial killing was justified.
Before his death, Rabin accused Netanyahu of incitement, but Netanyahu rejected appeals to restrain his supporters. Fearing he’d lose their support, Netanyahu refused to repudiate their invective and offered no denunciation of their violent speech and actions. He never distanced himself directly and only offered a mild rebuke of just “let’s defeat” him.
Trump’s comments, in the face of his supporters charging Clinton with treason and shouts to “lock her up,” are eerily reminiscent of Netanyahu’s pallid arm’s length comments in the face of his supporters’ rage. Trump, too, said in response, “let’s defeat” her, but he never denounced the extreme language, including the comments to execute his political opponent.
Incendiary language cannot only provoke and provide rationalization for extreme outcomes, but it also has less dramatic, long-term deleterious impact. It diminishes respect and trust, destroying efforts at compromise. It fosters deep resentments and separates us, subverting the search for common ground and any hope of consensus.
We are currently witnessing the cynical stoking of an ugly environment of hatred and fear. Dog whistle disavowals of the Ku Klux Klan and white power endorsements, the refusal to reject anti-Semitic symbols, and enduring calls for expulsions of millions of people, that at minimum would demand extraordinary invasive methods.
During the anti-Communist hunts of the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious chief counsel was Roy Cohn. He later became Trump’s valued personal counsel for many years. Trump has said of Cohn, “If you need someone to get vicious toward an opponent, you get Roy.” He also praised Cohn. “Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy,” he told journalist Timothy O’Brien. “He brutalized for you.” Trump seems to have absorbed Cohn’s methods.
In 1954, during a heated exchange with Senator McCarthy, Joseph Welch, the Army’s chief counsel, effectively confronted the senator and exposed his nature as a demagogic bully when he famously asked, “Have you no sense of decency?”
Today, we urgently need to honor that concept, to control the crudeness, cruelty, and reckless language of the extremists in our midst. We need to deny the politics of fear-mongering that banishes reason and civility for political advantage.
And we may need to ask again and again, “Have you no sense of decency?” And then, insist on it.
Sherman Teichman is the founding director emeritus of the Institute for Global Leadership of Tufts University. He is the founder of the educational consultancy The Trebuchet: Breaking Down Barriers.