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Explosive Devices Add to Climate of Overheated Partisan Rancor

By October 24, 2018September 8th, 2020No Comments

By Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times

Attendees wore shirts that said “CNN Is Fake News” to an August rally. On Wednesday, CNN received a suspicious package addressed to John Brennan, the former C.I.A. director.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — One suspicious package went to George Soros, the billionaire investor and liberal philanthropist who is a perpetual target of conservative conspiracy theories and smears — everything from being a former Nazi to the secret financier of the caravan of migrants making its way toward the United States.

Another went to John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director often maligned by conservatives as a leading conspirator in a “deep state” plot to undermine President Trump. Hillary Clinton was also sent one, as were President Barack Obama and his attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. — all of them subjects of fantastical, far-flung rumors and misinformation campaigns.

Law enforcement officials have not identified any suspects or motives in the rash of explosive devices that arrived this week at the addresses of some of the most vilified public figures in Democratic politics. For a country already on edge — consumed with overheated partisan rancor and divided over matters as basic as what separates fact and fiction — the attempted attacks marked an unsettling turn less than two weeks before a crucial midterm election.

But for a moment, at least, the political world paused on Wednesday to urge greater calm in a climate that had become dangerously inflammatory. Speaking at the White House, the president condemned the acts, saying that “acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.”

Mrs. Clinton, speaking at a Democratic fund-raiser in Florida, called the moment “troubling” and “a time of deep divisions.”

“We have to do everything we can to bring our country together,” she added.

Representative Steve Scalise, a Republican who was shot and almost killed in a mass shooting at a congressional baseball practice last year, called the acts “evil” and said, “As a nation, we must agree that this is a dangerous path and it cannot become the new normal.”

Those attempts at reconciliation and reflection, however, quickly gave way to the kind of reflexive, tribal defensiveness that is far more common today.

Many prominent conservative commentators — among them some of the president’s most ardent defenders — quickly pointed the finger at the left, accusing unnamed liberal agitators of sending the packages in a ploy to make Republicans look radical right before the midterms.

Rush Limbaugh, who hosts one of the most listened-to radio programs in the country with a weekly audience of about 14 million, questioned whether the bomb scare was part of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Democratic operatives and Mrs. Clinton.

“Mrs. Clinton, it’s your party, forgive me, that is encouraging this kind of thing,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his show on Wednesday. “It is the Democrat Party that’s home to all of these mobs,” he continued. “There’s a smell test that this stuff has to pass. And, so far, a lot of people’s noses are in the air, not quite certain of what to make of this.”

Alex Jones, the conspiracy peddler who runs the website Infowars, said the bombs were likely plants by the left and its allies in the media like CNN, where the package to Mr. Brennan was sent.

“This is introducing them as the targets so they can whine, and moan, and predict, ‘If Trump doesn’t stop, you’re going to get us all killed,’” Mr. Jones said on his daily online program.

Regardless of the culprit’s identity or political sympathies, there is no dispute that the people on the receiving end of the packages have all been targets of the kind of insults, threats and wild theories that often originate on right-wing websites and message boards, and then spread after others on the right, and sometimes the president himself, elevate them to legitimacy.

Mr. Trump has done so in several notable instances lately, including spreading the unfounded rumor that Mr. Soros is somehow involved in paying for the migrant caravan. Last week Mr. Trump tweeted a video that purported to be of someone connected to Mr. Soros handing out cash to the migrants. There is no evidence Mr. Soros has played any role in financing the caravans.

“Can you believe this, and what Democrats are allowing to be done to our Country?” the president wrote.

Experts in political violence said the attempted bombings seemed distressingly in line with the dehumanizing us vs. them tenor that has marked the current political discourse.

“People feel encouraged to attack people who are voting for the other party,” said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. “And this has now become ‘If you’re not with me, you’re against me. And not only are you against me, but you are dangerous.’”

“This is a virus on our society,” she added.

The story of the migrant caravan has triggered an outpouring of outrage in conservative news media. With its compelling images — video of thousands of Latin Americans making a march north toward the United States, broadcast almost hourly by Fox News — the caravan has become the visual manifestation of the fears and anxieties over illegal immigration that Mr. Trump and other conservatives, as well as many Republican candidates in the midterms, have warned about repeatedly.

The caravan has also become the vehicle for some of the more outrageous conspiracy theories about immigrants, including a claim by the president that Middle Easterners were among the marchers. Mr. Trump later acknowledged that he had no proof.

Mr. Trump and his allies have tried to link the caravan with what they have depicted as a menacing threat from the “mob” of Democratic protesters who have rallied against his administration. In the eyes of many conservatives, these portrayals are helpful politically as a way of casting Democrats as undermining law and order — both on the southern border and in the public square.

Mr. Limbaugh suggested that the attempted bombings on Wednesday were a way of diverting attention from the caravan.

“And by the way, guess what’s also not in the news now?” Mr. Limbaugh asked his audience. “That’s the other mob that’s finding its way north through Mexico attempting to crash the U.S. border at or near Election Day.”

Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a liberal group that critiques conservative news media, said he saw the bombs as evidence of how the president’s verbal threats can be amplified and potentially lead to physical harm.

“There had been this pretty generic brewing narrative of left-wing violence, and those are the entities that got targeted,” he said, noting that packages were sent to those who had recently made comments that conservatives said were inciting violence: Representative Maxine Waters, who called for demonstrators to confront Republicans; Mrs. Clinton, who said in a recent interview that civility with the right was not achievable; and Mr. Holder, who said in comments he later clarified that Democrats should “kick” Republicans when they go low.

Mr. Trump singled them all out by name in a video he filmed at the White House last week. “They’re losing it,” he said.

The caravan, Mr. Carusone added, quickly became a piece of the story of the Democratic “mob” when Mr. Trump and others on the right linked it to Mr. Soros and the Democrats.

“You can’t divorce Trump from the right-wing media at this moment,” Mr. Carusone added.

In his remarks at the White House, Mr. Trump said an investigation into the bombings was underway, and that “the full weight of our government is being deployed to conduct this investigation and bring those responsible to justice.”

Preventing political violence, he said, was a “very bipartisan statement.”

Isabella Grullón Paz contributed reporting