To defend Trump his supporters keep trying to make it appear as if responsibility is an all or nothing proposition. It isn’t. Responsibility, like blame, can be shared.
l. What We Mean By Responsibility
In the recent debate regarding the extent of Trump’s responsibility for the actions of his followers, Republicans have sought to confuse the American people about the term “responsibility.” Instead of using the word as it is often used in everyday English, which involves considering multiple factors when assigning responsibility, it is viewed by Trump supporters exclusively in terms of holding the perpetrator, the “madman,” accountable—the person against whom we should bring charges in a court of law.
However, this restricted definition is misleading, to say the least. Our notion of responsibility is not limited to those directly responsible for a criminal act. In the real world we also hold more than one person (non-legally) responsible for people’s actions, for example, the pastor who helps turn John’s life around. He made a difference. He was responsible for John becoming a different person, which doesn’t mean that John had nothing to do with it or wasn’t also responsible. In this case, both the pastor and John were responsible. And even legally more than one party can be held responsible for a crime, for example, if incitement takes place. Or consider something as commonplace as an auto accident, in which more than one party can be held liable, even to different degrees.
Does anyone actually doubt that there times and places when responsibility should be shared?
ll. Trump’s Responsibility
Trump is president of the entire United States. Presumably adults in this country, including Trump, should know that out of our more than 300 million fellow Americans a significant number are emotionally unstable. In this light, recent presidents have understood the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric coming from their pulpit, especially in the age of mass media, and have typically eschewed language that could lead people into believing that violent action against their political opponents is acceptable. Trump has changed the game. Only days before the first of Cesar Sayoc’s bombs were delivered, the president said this in praise of Republican Greg Gianforte’s body-slamming of a reporter:
“Never wrestle him. Never. Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of … he’s my guy.”
Trump routinely gives speeches in which he vilifies those who don’t support him, often calling out people by name. And he doesn’t just vilify individuals. He often makes it sound as if his side, his base, is at war with other Americans. They are enemies. In particular, most of the news media isn’t just wrong or inept or partisan, it’s the “enemy of the people.” * Given his stature as president, the person who is supposed to be protecting all of us, it sounds as if his opponents are not only the adversaries of Republicans but the enemies of America.
Of course Trump’s rhetoric predates his presidency. First as a candidate in the primaries and then as the nominee of one of two major parties in the United States—not yet a president but still having an extraordinary platform. Recall that during the 2016 campaign Trump made the following statement, referring to Clinton, as reported in USA Today:
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks,” Trump said before adding: “Though the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Many thought that he was advocating the use of weapons against his adversaries, but the Trump campaign immediately countered that he was only talking about a group, Second Amendment advocates, which, as a unified group, would vote together.
Whether you and I, presumably emotionally stable human beings, would accept such an explanation is open to debate. Let’s assume that we do. But what about all of those people who are less than completely stable, who are often socially or emotionally immature, who hear this sort of thing? How do they process it? And then they hear more and more highly charged remarks, and now they are not only coming from a candidate, but from the President of the United States.
After the president’s 2016 comments on the Second Amendment, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband, the astronaut Mark Kelley, released the following statement:
Donald Trump might astound Americans on a routine basis, but we must draw a red line between political speech and suggestions of violence. Responsible, stable individuals won’t take Trump’s rhetoric to its literal end, but his words may provide a magnet for those seeking infamy. They may provide inspiration or permission for those bent on bloodshed.
Truer words were never spoken. Trump doesn’t have to pull the actual trigger or send the bomb through the mail to be held responsible for inspiring those who carry out these acts, or giving unstable individuals permission to commit them. Those who act are responsible, but this doesn’t mean that Trump doesn’t bear responsibility as well.
Trump is President of the United States. He is in a singularly unique position to influence people. He must be held to much higher standard than citizens in general or other politicians. It is wildly irresponsible for a president to use the bully pulpit without taking into consideration the make-up of his audience and his own stature. Claiming that Cesar Sayoc is a madman or a crazy or sick isn’t enough to explain why his alleged “madness” happened to take the form of attacking Trump’s named adversaries and enemies, unless Trump’s words make up part of the explanation as well. And certainly Trump is responsible for his words.
* “President Donald Trump clarified his remarks about the media being the “enemy of the people,” saying that he was only talking about the ‘fake news’ media. Trump added that the figure accounted for ’80 percent’ of all media.” August 23, 2018, “Trump to Fox News: ’80 Percent’ of Media Are ‘Enemy of the People’ ”
Photo of Cesar Savoc at Trump rally, from Michael Moore, raw footage, Fahrenheit 11/9.