Republican Congressman Roger Williams, a former professional baseball player among those lawmakers attacked by a crazed, armed Bernie Sanders supporter during a congressional baseball practice in summer 2017, wrote a column last month blaming Democratic leadership for inciting the violence that precipitated the attack. It’s the kind of piece many in far-right Republican circles relish — and the kind over which far-sighted, disciplined Republican strategists must have grimaced and shaken their weary heads.
After all, Williams’ column also serves as a big fat invitation for Democrats to morally call out Republicans when Republicans’ own incendiary language spurs crazed or feeble-minded individuals in their own ranks to resort to violence.
“Though most of our physical wounds have now healed, we continue to be challenged by Democratic leaders intentionally inciting a violent and mob-like mentality from their followers,” Williams wrote in an Oct. 16 Dallas Morning News column. “With this toxic outlook, it’s only a matter of time before this type of politically motivated attack happens again. This is simply not acceptable because next time the targets may not be as lucky as we were.”
The Austin-based lawmaker went on to note that, “as a survivor of such violence that was directly targeted at Republicans,” he was disgusted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s “rousing his fellow Democrats at a political rally, saying, ‘When [Republicans] go low, we kick them.’ It is this very idea — the call to violence as an act of political discord — that keeps me awake at night. This harmful rhetoric has become the premeditated brainchild of Democratic leadership and, sadly, this is not an isolated incident.”
Hurrah for Congressman Williams, including his condemnation of Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ urging the harassment of Trump administration officials. So where was Congressman Williams’ outrage when the president of the United States at a mob-like political rally reveled in a Montana congressional candidate’s assaulting a reporter who dared question him on health care? Where was Congressman Williams’ outrage when the president branded Democrats “evil”? Where was Congressman Williams’ outrage when a Trump troglodyte fueled by hate and lies at Trump rallies reportedly mailed off pipe bombs to the president’s critics?
In an Oct. 24 Trib interview after bombs were mailed to former President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, Republican Congressman Bill Flores, whose district includes Waco, proved more eager to blame Democrats such as Waters and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi than the president’s fiery rhetoric at rallies — an interesting response given he declines to conduct in-person town-hall meetings with constituents to avoid rhetoric that might erupt into violence. He conducts these events by phone and online instead.
The Trib interview with Flores came two days after he was anointed by the president during a Houston political rally in which Donald Trump among other things claimed without proof that Democrats paid Honduran refugees now heading through Mexico for the United States. To quote Texas Monthly political writer R.G. Ratcliffe, a seasoned observer of Texas politics: “Throughout my career of covering politics, I have heard so much hyperbole and spin from both Republicans and Democrats that I’ve become somewhat calloused to it. But there were so many half-truths, insinuations and lies told by the [Republican] speakers in the Toyota Center that it is too mind-numbing to render.”
And it’s contagious, at least in this hard-fought midterm election. In knocking on doors and corralling voters outside polling places, I marvel at how what this president tweets one day is on the lips of his disciples the next, spoken as gospel, no matter how groundless or outrageous or venomous.
In a lengthy interview I conducted with Congressman Flores on Oct. 5, he acknowledged he was trying to be more careful about political news items posted on his Facebook page and Twitter feed — especially after a fellow Republican in Waco protested to the congressman (and the Trib) about the dubious sources of Flores’ social-media posts. However, Flores stressed that the level of intolerance permeates both political parties. His thoughts on all this are relevant and insightful enough, I believe, to quote at some length:
“We as a people have become very coarse. I’m real disappointed in it. You’ve heard me say this, I hate to repeat it to you, but I remember when I first ran in 2010. When people would get behind a keyboard they would get really aggressive with what they said. They did it without fear and without worrying about accountability for what they said. You could see that same person on the street and you could have a rational conversation with them — a mature, collaborative conversation with some level of comity.
“Today, though, what I see is the social-media behavior has morphed over into our interpersonal relationships. I think it’s been bad for the country. We’re raising a whole generation of people who think it’s OK to be intolerant. If you don’t like conservatives, or if you don’t like liberals, it’s OK to say whatever you want to on social media, or go beat ’em up, or steal their hat, or tear up their signs, and that bothers me. There’s no statute that’s going to fix that.
“Congress sort of acts the same way the American people do. Which is the cart, which is the horse? I don’t know. Washington has certainly not set a good example. The president, in some cases, hasn’t set a good example. There are a couple of times, right after Trump got elected, where I’d retweet a couple of snowflake comments [designed to provoke meltdowns among those on the other side of the political fence]. I wish I hadn’t done that. So I didn’t set a good example then. I’ve tried to be very careful since then.”
Rick Kennedy, Flores’ Democratic opponent in the Nov. 6 election, says much of the contempt we Americans have for one another comes from the shadows rather than encounters in the light of day: “Cyberspace is a completely different ballgame. They’ve got Facebook and Twitter to hide behind to do all that stuff. But on a person-to-person basis, I think at the end of the day, we still are all Americans. Social media, Twitter especially, is just a cesspool of vile hatred.”
So does this hate rise from bottom to top, infecting public servants in the Legislature, Congress and the White House? Or do our leaders act as cheerleaders of hate and fear, manipulating giddy and gullible supporters? America’s history brims with political misdeeds exploding into vandalism and violence. One reason George Washington disowned Thomas Jefferson was because of the latter’s willingness to inflame supporters against Washington and his allies with gross exaggerations, hyperbole and, yes, fake news. And, of course, physical brawls have erupted in the halls of power, including the famous caning of U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner in 1856, a virtual prelude to the Civil War.
In all this, real leadership is hard to find. Several weeks ago, retired Army Colonel Jon Ker, the McLennan County Republican Party chairman, incensed at the defacing of some Ted Cruz campaign signs, sent a red-hot letter to the Tribune-Herald in which he invoked “the venomous rhetoric from Maxine Waters,” cited “anarchist thugs assaulting Sen. Ted Cruz and his wife at a Washington, D.C., restaurant,” then asked “is it any wonder many Cruz campaign signs were vandalized here in McLennan County?” He went on to proclaim that “it’s clear the underlying impetus here includes the absence of character and integrity, wholesale intolerance, total disregard for each person’s right of free expression and a mind given to criminal activity.” (Of claims this letter was significantly altered in print, I can only say we removed but three key words: STRENGTH AND HONOR, typed in all caps next to Colonel Ker’s name. One Republican actually faulted the newspaper for publishing the party chairman’s tirade.)
By contrast, McLennan County Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Duty, a former schoolteacher and a pizza proprietor, upon learning two Cruz signs had been defaced, went out and scrubbed clean these very signs with the aid of a friend, Waco Tea Party founder Toby Marie Walker, who taught Duty the usefulness of WD-40. (Yes, this unique friendship is another story.) Duty even posted a video of herself cleaning the Cruz signs while reading the riot act to her Democratic troops, assuming they were responsible: “This is not how democracy works. If you don’t like the candidate, you go vote for the candidate you like more. You don’t take a can of spray paint and go out and deface property, because that’s like totally not right. I don’t like this guy [Cruz], I have friends who do, and I’m working my hardest to make sure that the other guy, Beto O’Rourke, wins, but I don’t waste my time defacing signs because that’s counter-productive.”
Question: Which party leader showed actual leadership?
Postlude: Following Colonel Ker’s letter, local Democratic Party official Mary Mann sent a letter to the Trib in response, lambasting Ker for his histrionics, noting his letter was “full of excrement and really missed the target.” Days later, someone vandalized a restroom at Democratic Party headquarters with, yes, excrement. Thus far, no comment from Colonel Ker regarding the defacement or theft of Beto O’Rourke signs or partisan excrement. So much for honor, leadership and the party of personal responsibility.
Some lawmakers stress the need to set personal and public examples of statesmanship — “What I consistently focus on, what I focused on in the debates, what I focus on in the campaign, is issues and substance,” Sen. Cruz told me in an Oct. 19 interview. Yet this makes little difference when someone else from your political party is feeding constituents half-truths and riling them up in underhanded ways. It’s easy for lawmakers to condemn bad behavior in the other party, but it raises the question: Will you demand better of fellow partisans when they demonstrate brutish behavior?
One reason I became a Republican decades ago: I concluded those in the Party of Lincoln were better than the Democrats. Republicans were more often than not rigorous in ensuring candidates and office-holders met certain standards of ethical behavior. One pinnacle of Republican history: Three Republican lawmakers, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Barry Goldwater of Arizona and House Minority Leader John Rhodes of Arizona, visiting embattled President Nixon, a fellow Republican, in 1974 to tell him that he was through because of corruption and obstruction of justice. Yes, winning elections was important, but on rare occasions when party leaders found one of their own so unqualified and so scandalous, they not only distanced themselves from such a figure but urged fellow Republicans to support the Democrat instead.
Gone are the days. Winning is everything today.
Maxine Waters? I suspect most Democrats would deny she represents the party in her exhortations that party activists harass Republicans in restaurants, bars and similar venues. But wouldn’t it be encouraging if Democratic leadership — say, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — stripped Waters of her ranking membership on the House Committee on Financial Services to stress that certain misbehavior will not be tolerated? Yet are Republicans prepared to do the very same to those Republicans who embarrass their party and dishonor the nation?
So far neither Democrats nor Republicans have this sort of consistent resolve, whether disciplining a Republican for yelling “You lie” when a Democratic president of the United States is delivering an address to Congress or when Democrats conduct a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson received no more than a reprimand for disrupting the president’s speech in 2009 — and Pelosi herself participated in the controversial 2016 sit-in, adding to the ethical calamity. To complicate matters, enraged Republican Congressman (and former judge) Louie Gohmert of Tyler nearly came to blows with Democrats during the sit-in, to the point Congressman Flores was pressed by colleagues to physically restrain Gohmert. As Flores told me: “I went and grabbed him and got him pulled off. It wasn’t easy. I thought he was going to hit me. Hell, I don’t know why they picked me, but I did [it]. I thought it would... What the Democrats were doing was not appropriate for the decorum of the House and Louie was going to make it worse. I thought we as Republicans can’t make it worse.”
Rick Kennedy suggests reforming the redistricting process that allows lawmakers to gerrymander legislative and congressional districts favoring their party’s electoral chances. This, he says, leaves candidates more obligated to extremist wings within their own party — and thus more likely to say and do extremist things rather than preaching rational solutions and building consensus.
In his Oct. 19 interview, Sen. Cruz emphasized term limits as a solution to institutional ills — and both Flores and Cruz’s Democratic challenger, Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, vow term limits in their own public service. One reason Flores tells me that he’s conflicted about pursuing a House leadership position is because he has but two more terms left and intends to remain true to his vow.
Unfortunately, Congress is highly unlikely to propose any constitutional amendment that limits terms. And the gorilla in the room at present is President Trump. Say what you will of George W. Bush or Barack Obama, but both understood their role as consolers-in-chief. They never forgot presidents had a duty to unify and inspire the public, not aggravate our differences. Trump’s obvious lust for adoration at rallies — gained by saying “politically incorrect” and hateful things — says as much about Trump as those who swoon and laugh and cheer at his rallies.
While Obama and others targeted in last month’s assassination attempt on behalf of President Trump have largely refrained from saying anything to aggravate matters, the slaughter of 11 Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh prompted the Jewish group Bend the Arc to express themselves bluntly when the president claimed to sympathize: “For the past three years, your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement. You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence.”
And last week three militia members convicted of scheming to bomb the mosque and homes of Somali immigrants in Kansas claimed they should be granted leniency in sentencing because they were inspired by Trump’s rhetoric encouraging violence. In legal documents, the men claimed Trump’s rhetoric appealed to “lost and ignored white, working-class men.” Trump’s monologues are beginning to catch up with him.
And along the Texas-Mexico border, property owners worry about getting caught in deadly crossfire when armed, self-declared militias and border vigilantes arrive to patrol the region, wander onto private property and turn trigger-happy, all to combat what militia members say the president himself calls an immigrant invasion in his campaign rallies. Generally such groups contact border patrol personnel when they see immigrants crossing illegally. But given the inflamed political state of affairs and unrestrained rhetoric about immigrant bands, who knows what might happen?
Anyone expecting anything different of this president and his most fervent supporters is living a pipe dream. And it’s doubtful Republican leadership has the courage or willpower to contest a demagogue-in-chief. A likely reason for Democratic Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke’s surprising success as a contender against Sen. Ted Cruz involves more than boyish energy and widespread dismay at the growing ugliness in American politics. Key features of O’Rourke rallies across Texas, including seven he’s held in Waco: a refusal to take below-the-belt cheap shots at Cruz, a strain of vibrant optimism and some self-deprecating humor.
During an extensive Oct. 24 interview I conducted with O’Rourke, he acknowledged increasing tensions between citizenry: “How we get back to that ability to disagree agreeably, I don’t know. But we can try to lead by example. We really have done our best in this campaign. You’ll never ever find me saying something about the Republican Party other than, ‘If you’re Republican, I’m glad you’re here at this event.’ You’ll never hear me saying the Democrats are superior. Any Democrat who says that Republicans don’t care about your health care or don’t care about the poor or don’t care about the environment, any Republican who says Democrats don’t care about national security or our borders or the Second Amendment — we just can’t buy in to those gross generalizations that make us fear... and, look, this is dangerous stuff.”
When I asked what personal quality he believed drove his Senate juggernaut during his final campaign stop in Waco last Wednesday, O’Rourke tried to steer the answer away from himself: “This is more of a reflection on Texas than a candidate, but doing this without PAC money, going to every county, never writing anybody off — it opens our eyes to what is possible and the goodness in the state. In North Texas this morning, we were getting coffee and this guy came up and said, ‘Hey, listen, I voted a straight Republican ballot’ — meaning he did not vote for me in the election — ‘but I just wanted to come up and thank you for the kind of campaign that you’re running. It’s really refreshing and I wish you luck.’
“Now, he didn’t have to do that,” O’Rourke said. “I’m not the guy he voted for. But taking a moment to say something kind with whom you disagree on this election, that’s what we need to get back to in this country. And it made my day. I’m happier for it and more hopeful that this country that is so divided right now can still find a way to come together.”
Is O’Rourke naive? Or sly like a fox? The question is relevant as Cruz last week tweeted the possibility O’Rourke staffers used campaign funds to support the mass of Central American emigrants now bound for the border — a preposterous claim from a notoriously discredited source that Congressman Flores retweeted. Annunciation House, the longtime El Paso religious charity reportedly benefiting from this donation of less than $300, helps migrant poor among others in El Paso and is driven by recognition “that the Gospel calls us all to the poor and that the life and presence of Jesus in the Gospels is so completely in relation to the poor.”
Further evidence of O’Rourke’s resourcefulness in this toxic political environment: When Republican House leadership shut off C-SPAN cameras to prevent Americans from seeing the aforementioned June 2016 Democratic sit-in mounted on the House floor (to force consideration of gun-control legislation), Congressman O’Rourke was one of the few who thought to resort to livestreaming the protest through Facebook, allowing C-SPAN to continue its coverage and constituents to witness the event. (Last week, during his final campaign stop in Waco, O’Rourke shrewdly posed for photos individually with a long line of supporters, pressing each afterward to post the picture on social media to encourage greater voter turnout. One supporter, 26-year-old photographer Carter Rodman, came dressed as a banana — it was Halloween — because, he quipped, he wanted everyone to know he was “bananas for Beto.” This, incidentally, occurred the same day the news media learned O’Rourke had earlier been threatened on Facebook by the same individual accused of sending pipe bombs to former President Obama and at least 13 others who have questioned or criticized the Republican president.)
Can all this get worse with a president who skillfully unlocks the Pandora’s box within each of us, unleashing animosity, resentment and noxious impulses long suppressed by societal standards and political correctness? You bet. During my interviews with voters at their homes and polling places the past two weeks, 58-year-old Iraq war veteran and electronics engineer Dan Goodman of Moody said he was increasingly frustrated with Republicans and Democrats who couldn’t reach consensus on critical issues. Yet Goodman, a Republican, acknowledged how deeply entrenched political perspectives can be, given experiences with his 37-year-old wife.
“My wife is a Democrat,” he said, “and we can’t even have a decent conversation about politics at the house.”
One can always assume the best still percolates within each of us. A 44-year-old attorney living in Woodway told me how, after he put a Beto sign up in his yard, his retired neighbor across the street erected not only a conventional Cruz sign visible to passing motorists but a “Veto Beto” sign squarely facing his home: “Every time I drive out, he wants me to see it. But we wave to each other. There’s no ill will. If he and his wife ever needed a single thing, I would run over and do it. And I think he would do the same.”