In moments of national crisis, presidents typically reach for unifying themes, as Bill Clinton did after the Oklahoma City bombing and George W. Bush did with the bullhorn on the wrecked fire truck after 9/11. President Trump on Thursday chose confrontation over conciliation.
Upset that critics linked a spate of pipe bombs targeting his adversaries to his own angry messaging, Mr. Trump abandoned the scripted call for national solidarity he issued the day before and lashed out at perceived enemies for fomenting the toxic political environment they say he has encouraged.
Even though investigators have not named a suspect, let alone a motive, the debate that erupted focused new attention on the contagion of divisive and at times violent language that starts with the president and filters down to other politicians and to partisan media. Demonization has become mainstream, and the events of the past few days seem almost like a predictable but dangerous outcome of the rage and resentment that dominate the United States’ political conversation.
With less than two weeks until the midterm elections, Mr. Trump has been crisscrossing the nation denouncing his “evil” opponents and the “enemy of the people” news media, while some Democrats have been increasingly arguing that they should fight fire with fire and have even been harassing Republicans in restaurants and stores. American politics, rarely if ever a kumbaya exercise, is now marked by talk of left-wing mobs and right-wing nationalism, and has become as combustible this fall as it has been in modern times.
Mr. Trump stands at the center of that debate, a pugilist and partisan who rarely describes himself as the leader of all Americans. The past three presidents all came to office promising in different ways to be, as Mr. Bush put it, “a uniter, not a divider,” even if none of them fully realized the ambition in polarizing times. But that has never really been Mr. Trump’s stated goal, much less his approach to the office.
A reality television star who praised a congressman for body-slamming a reporter and urged supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters, he has connected with his admirers through a combative style that feels invigorating to those who resent the longtime establishment Mr. Trump promises to take on. While the president may have a point about the larger tenor of discourse, which precedes and exceeds him, Mr. Trump does not subscribe to the traditional belief that a president should meet a higher standard to set an example for everyone else.
Mr. Trump did not mention that CNN, the news network that he has long assailed and called “fake news,” was among the targets of a pipe bomb, along with former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, as of Thursday, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the actor Robert De Niro. At his rallies, Mr. Trump singles out CNN for opprobrium, prompting the crowd to chant “CNN sucks! CNN sucks!”
John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director who has become one of Mr. Trump’s biggest critics and was one of the intended targets of a pipe bomb, said on Thursday that the president was trying to deflect his own responsibility for the ugly environment.
“Stop blaming others,” he wrote on Twitter. “Look in the mirror. Your inflammatory rhetoric, insults, lies, & encouragement of physical violence are disgraceful. Clean up your act … try to act Presidential. The American people deserve much better.”
Some of Mr. Trump’s Republican critics agreed. “He is not capable of being a unifier,” Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, who lost the 2016 nomination to Mr. Trump, said on CNN. “In fact, I’ve become convinced that he doesn’t know how to accept personal responsibility and always finds somebody else to blame.”
There was plenty of blame being spread on Thursday. Even as some liberal commentators argued that the bomb scares were a product of the president’s verbal threats, some prominent conservative commentators speculated that Democrats were behind the bombs as part of a plot to make Republicans look bad just before the election.
Mr. Trump’s caustic approach to politics has increasingly been echoed through the rest of the political food chain, in effect giving license to other politicians who no longer hide their rougher edges. The campaign atmosphere was already inflamed by the confirmation battle over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which served to bond Mr. Trump with many Republicans in shared outrage at Democrats who opposed the nomination.
Hugh Hewitt, the conservative commentator who is not always an enthusiastic defender of Mr. Trump’s, noted on Thursday the similarities between the Kavanaugh confirmation and what he described as a rush to judgment by the news media to link the president’s aggressive rhetoric to the rash of suspicious packages. He said he expected coverage of the episode to solidify support behind Republican candidates ahead of the midterms.
Blaming the president, Mr. Hewitt wrote on Twitter, “is going to turn support for these candidates rock hard solid.” He added, “It is confirmation bias on display in almost every newsroom, the same sort of collective guilty verdict before any evidence as rendered against #JusticeKavanaugh.”
Speaking on his radio program, Mr. Hewitt asked his guest, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whether Mr. Trump had simply “driven them crazy,” referring to Democrats.
Mr. Cruz, another Republican with a tortured history with the president, agreed, using language very similar to that of the president’s in describing the Democratic “mobs.”
“They are in the fits and throes of Trump Derangement Syndrome,” Mr. Cruz said. “And some of it is, I think, they’re captive to their base. Their far-left base, their radical base, is so furious that the only thing they see is hatred of Trump.”
The proliferation of Trump-style language can be seen on the campaign trail this fall, often at rallies where the president appears with local Republicans eager for his help in stoking the conservative base.
At a rally with Mr. Trump in Arizona last week, Martha McSally, the Republican Senate candidate and a former Air Force combat pilot, even implicitly linked her opponent, Kyrsten Sinema, to Afghanistan’s Taliban extremists.
“I was shooting at the Taliban and Sinema says it’s O.K. for an American to join the Taliban,” Ms. McSally said. “What the hell?” The audience booed. “Right? And I was wearing a flight suit, and she was wearing a pink tutu.” Ms. McSally was referring to a hypothetical question in a radio interview in 2003, when Ms. Sinema expressed indifference to the prospect of an American joining the Taliban.
In Tennessee, the Republican candidate for Senate, Representative Marsha Blackburn, has parroted Mr. Trump’s unfounded claims about voting by undocumented immigrants and turned those charges against her opponent, Phil Bredesen. In an interview with Breitbart News on Thursday, Ms. Blackburn implied without evidence that Mr. Bredesen wanted people here illegally so they could vote for him.
In Michigan, John James, the Republican running to unseat Senator Debbie Stabenow, has used Mr. Trump’s language of conservative victimization, telling Sean Hannity of Fox News this week that the “mob” had created a climate of fear for Republicans. “Right now, conservative speech is considered violence. And liberal violence is considered speech. It is an attack on what we hold dear and fundamental.”
Some Democrats targeted by the pipe bombs have been on the receiving end of Mr. Trump’s sharpest attacks. He has assailed Representative Maxine Waters of California as “Crazy Maxine Waters” who has a “very low I.Q.” He continues to attack Hillary Clinton two years after the end of their campaign with supporters reprising their “lock her up” chants.
Some have responded in kind. Ms. Waters has told supporters to confront Republicans in public places and “tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Mr. Biden has said he would have “beat the hell” out of Mr. Trump in high school. Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., another intended bomb recipient, said Democrats should reject Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” approach, saying instead, “When they go low, we kick them.”
At the White House on Thursday, Mr. Trump went quiet about the bombs after his morning tweet while aides sought to tamp down the furor that followed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, implored people to focus on “the person who made and sent these packages,” whose identity and motives remained unknown. “Let’s not get lost in who is responsible for this heinous act,” she said.
Source: New York Times