You hear a lot of people in political conversations these days talking about the need to “tone down the rhetoric,” although it is not always clear what they mean.
The expression took on a new urgency, if not full clarity, after the horrible baseball field shooting Wednesday that left Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, and four others wounded in a Washington suburb.
“I only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric,” said Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, in a Buffalo radio station interview. “The rhetoric has been outrageous . the finger-pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump (and) his supporters.”
At the scene of the horror in Alexandria, Va., Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King gave an even more gloomy and sweeping assessment. “America has been divided,” he said. “And the center of America is disappearing, and the violence is appearing in the streets, and it’s coming from the left.”
From the left? Ah, what happened to those heartwarming, patriotic, come-together calls for unity that Republican Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi issued right after the shootings?
Before the end of the day, the tragedy began to become a political issue, largely because the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill., who was killed in the police shootout, was revealed to have been a liberal. He had volunteered for Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and expressed anti-Trump and anti-Republican views on his social network pages. (Informed of this, Sanders denounced the man and his violent acts.)
To former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, that information confirmed his perceptions of “increasing intensity of hostility on the left,” he said in an appearance that morning on Fox News. Among his examples, he picked an easy target: comedian Kathy Griffin’s infamously tasteless depiction of a decapitated Trump, a stunt that that was outlandish enough to embarrass a lot of her fans.
Newt also singled out another example that also was cited that day by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son: the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar,” in which the assassinated title character looks a lot like President Trump.
But nobody had linked these particular examples to the killings. Griffin lost her CNN New Year’s Eve co-hosting job and several other booked performances. The “Julius Caesar” production is a bit tougher to condemn, since the script has been a hit for about four centuries.
Yet some on the right condemn it anyway. Among other benefits, blaming the left gives GOP lawmakers something to say, however feebly, to those who call for more gun safety measures in the wake of mass shootings.
Well, speaking for myself, I cheerfully support their call for toned-down rhetoric on the left, if they agree to actively promote the same thing on the right.
That won’t be easy. Politics has never been a game for the squeamish, and it’s not unfair to say that political feelings haven’t been this polarized since the 1960s. Once-routine debates about, say, infrastructure repair suddenly have become good-vs.-evil showdowns that grind governance to a halt.
In that battlefield, “tone down the rhetoric” means shift down from fevered emotional heights to argument based on facts and logic. Unfortunately, facts tend to take more work and deliver less of an emotional payback than chest-thumping, bloviating, name-calling, fear-mongering and good old-fashioned demagoguing.
President Trump knows about that. It is, in large part, how he became president. He exploited the phony, paranoid notion that President Barack Obama’s birth certificate was a fake. He mocked his primary opponents like the class bully; he slandered Ted Cruz by linking his father to the Kennedy assassination. He urged his audiences to attack protesters and promised to put “crooked Hillary” Clinton “in jail.”
You get the idea. I don’t have to relive the campaign. President Trump has been doing enough of that on his own.
Besides, why linger on the past in our efforts to tone down the rhetoric. We have plenty of fresh examples of turned-up rhetoric every day.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.