Speaking on CNN Sunday morning, Democratic donor Tom Steyer blamed recent political violence, included attempted pipe bombings and the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, on the nasty rhetoric of Republican President Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Despite his own taste for throwing around the word "treason" and speculating that a nuclear war might be necessary to get Americans to turn against Trump, he might be forgiven his excess—he was the target of one of those bombs, after all. Yet, as leaders of both major American political tribes portray their enemies as not just wrong on policy but dangerous and depraved, they both bear responsibility for making government so frighteningly powerful that Americans increasingly feel that they can't afford to lose control of governing institutions.
In the current environment, even when Americans don't love their political allies, they hate their opponents—and have reason to fear their turn in power.
"Record numbers of voters in 2016 were dissatisfied with their own party's presidential nominee and the opposing party's nominee," according to Emory University's Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster. So the deciding factor came down to the fact that "large majorities of Democrats and Republicans truly despised the opposing party's nominee."
"Negative views of the opposing party are a major factor" in why people belong to political parties, Pew Research agreed this spring. In the U.S., many Democrats and Republicans alike say "a major reason they identify with their own party is that they have little in common with members of the other party."
Pew had already found that "sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger."
Why such fright and rage? Is it all about mean words?
No. Heated rhetoric is nothing new (the founders blistered each others' ears) and insufficient by itself to inspire a Trump supporter to send pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, or to inspire a Bernie Sanders fan to shoot a Republican congressman and several others. Nor are the idiot leftists and right-wingers pounding on each other in Portland, New York City, Charlottesville, and elsewhere otherwise placid people moved to violence by politicians' intemperate words. Heated rhetoric and violence have resulted and escalated as government has grown in size and power—and been weaponized for use by those holding the reins against those they see as enemies.
Officials can be vindictive creatures, eager to use the power of the state to penalize those whose lifestyles, economic activity, and political affiliations they dislike. Tax power was long ago turned to such misuse, probably because tax collectors had authority to intrude into people's lives before other government employees gained such clout. "My father may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution," Elliott Roosevelt observed of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In recent years, federal officials have abused their regulatory authority to squeeze financial institutions to cut off funds to critics such as Wikileaks. The practice was formalized at the federal level by Operation Chokepoint, which sought to deny financial services to businesses that were perfectly legal, but disfavored in certain circles, such as adult entertainers, gun shops, and payday lenders.
New York's governor extended the abuse of state regulatory power over banks to target not just firearms dealers, but advocates of self-defense rights such as "the NRA or similar gun promotion organizations."
President Trump has openly pushed the Justice Department to investigate Democrats who have rubbed him the wrong way. He also sees security clearances as personal favors to be doled out to friends and denied to critics. In this, he follows on his predecessor's distaste for "enemies" and willingness to misuse the organs of government—including the IRS—as weapons.
Even those Americans who aren't especially concerned with politics can find themselves on the receiving end of laws weaponized for use against businesses and pastimes that those currently in power associate with their political enemies.
"[T]he separation here seeps into the micro level, down to the particular neighborhoods, schools, churches, restaurants and clubs that tend to attract one brand of partisan and repel the other," the Washington Post reported in 2016 of an era when lifestyle and partisan affiliation increasingly correlate. That makes it easy to punish partisan opponents through things they enjoy, such as hunting, marijuana, and brands of cars, without running afoul of constitutional protections for the way they vote.
There are few areas of human life into which government has not inserted itself. "More and more of what we do is dependent on permission from the government," I noted in July. "That permission, unsurprisingly, is contingent on keeping government officials happy."
If the government can reach into virtually every area of life, can grant or deny permission to make a living or enjoy pastimes, and has a documented history of abusing such authority for petty and vindictive reasons, why wouldn't you be afraid of your enemies wielding such power? How could you avoid growing fearful and angry over their anticipated conduct once they took their inevitable turn in office? And what would you say—and eventually do—to stop them? Especially, if you were a little unhinged to begin with.
Are politicians further stirring the pot with nasty rhetoric about their critics and opponents? Maybe. We may well find that the man who murderously attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue and the guy who mailed poisonous ricin to U.S. officials became more prone to act in an environment in which overt expressions of hatred have become common.
But that rhetoric and the related partisan rancor have been building for years as government has become inescapable, and as victorious factions have used their time in power to punish those who lost the last battle—only to suffer in turn as the wheel turns. If you want violent political battles for control of government to end, make politics matter much, much less. When Americans have less to fear no matter who wins political office, they'll be less prone to viciously fight each other for control of government.