Firing at Democracy The Toxic State of America

The attack on Republican members of Congress in the United States this week is a product of America's increasingly toxic political climate. Democracy is at stake in a country where two, deeply divided sides are no longer capable of reasonable debate.

The site of the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia

The site of the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia

A Commentary by in Washington, D.C.

Once the attacker was dead and the injured cared for, once quiet had returned to Congress and the investigation had begun, a hint of harmony briefly descended over Washington. Democrats said prayers for Republicans, adversaries found warm words for each other and even Donald Trump acted like a statesman. America is strongest, he said, "when we are unified and when we work together for the common good."

This, from Trump -- arguably America's most divisive figure.

It sounded as if he had forgotten recent months -- the tirades and hate-filled speeches. As if there were no gaping rift between the opposing political camps, right and left, long since unbridgeable. For a moment, it seemed the president had swept aside all the rage -- and the nation was thankful.

What happened on Wednesday in Alexandria, a Washington suburb, was not Donald Trump's fault. The attacker opened fire on Republican members of the House and Senate. It was not an attempted political assassination, but it was an act that was at least partly motivated by politics. The perpetrator, James Thomas Hodgkinson, was a disturbed Bernie Sanders supporter who considered Trump to be a "traitor." It was an attack on democracy, but above all provided evidence of just how toxic the political environment in the United States has become. And of course, this president, both directly and indirectly, bears his share of the blame for this climate.

A political battle is raging in the United States in which the competing camps are no longer engaging in debate. Instead, each side is denying the other's right to participate in the democratic process. Both sides are raising the specter of treason as a way of justifying violence. The rage against elites has become impossible to contain, with ring leaders on the right speaking of "war" and those on the left of "resistance." The two sides are united by the thirst for confrontation and by the occasional repudiation of their opponents' humanity. Eric Trump, one of President Trump's sons, recently said that critics of the American leader are "not even people."

Debates have often been shrill in the United States. And violence has reared its head in political life before -- and not just since the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Profiteering from Polarization

But today, a man is sitting in the White House who profits from the polarization and is further fanning the flames. It is not the language of moderation that is spoken in Trump's Washington -- it is one of revolt, revenge, rage and cynicism, and that isn't by chance. Journalists have become "enemies of the state," judges are ridiculed, government prosecutors getting too close to the president are threatened with dismissal and the head of the FBI is fired.

But Trump isn't sowing the seeds of rage on his own. His opponents are also doing a fine job of escalating this rhetorical arms race with talk of street battles, as if guerilla warfare were the solution. Comedienne Cathy Griffin had herself photographed recently holding Trump's fake decapitated head by the hair. At the point in a debate when the physical well-being of one's opponent is no longer sacred, there are no boundaries left.

The ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans has never been as wide as it is today. The most dangerous aspect of this development is that the two sides are no longer able to agree on basic facts. One wonders whether Republicans and Democrats could even agree that the sky is blue. If everything is relative and nothing is certain, when a president lies so openly, then who can you trust? When the language of this government is so corrupt and misguided, what is one to do?

There are few institutions left that both sides accept as being nonpartisan. At the moment, Trump's helpers are busy casting aspersions at independent special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been tasked with investigating Russian influence on the presidential campaign and potential ties between Moscow and the Trump team. Until his appointment, he had been accepted by Republicans and Democrats alike as an independent official with integrity. The campaign against Mueller is destroying any possibility, at least on this question, that one side's version of the truth might ultimately be accepted.

The harmony following the attack in Alexandria didn't last long. The next morning, Trump tweeted he was the victim of a "WITCH HUNT." He was referring, of course, to special counsel Mueller.

Debate is one of the foundations of democracy, but in the U.S. it's hardly possible anymore. And when the people of a country are no longer capable of speaking to each other, when they constantly believe their opponents are involved in a conspiracy, then a country's institutions are also imperiled. And with them, democracy itself.

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minimamoralia 06/16/2017
1. The Toxic State of America
Would it be possible to do away with the false equivalencies comparing the traditionally violent rhetoric of the 'Right' with the reactive and relatively passive 'Left' in the US? The right-wing base of the US has been mobilized with racist, xenophobic and religious propaganda over countless election cycles, stirring up fear and hatred of the latest 'straw man' du jour. The cynical manipulation of the less-educated and isolationist US population has created an environment of violence, both in word and in deed. Don't allow the US rightwing to continue to determine the frame of these arguments. By doing so, you continue to play into their propaganda machine.
sam_dicamillo 06/18/2017
2. Mr. Scheuermann, you are propagating lies and bullshit.
" A man is sitting in the White House who profits from the polarization and is further fanning the flames" This is an outrageous lie and destortion of the current situation. The pandemoneous "fanning" of the flames has been effected for the last year by the leftist press and their cohorts in the democrat party, by leftist academia, by TV personalities, so-called artists, and hollywood buffoons, etc, etc, and last not but least, in Germany, by the typical german leftist know-it-all : "Besserwisser", attitude and mindset. Sam Dicamillo , "Mensa" society member since 1973, pro jazz musician, and DT voter.
simslovescats 06/19/2017
3. the Virginia shooting incident ,
You have neglected to mention the person involved had, according to US media, a history of mental-health problems and domestic violence. Throw in the all-too-easy availability of guns in America and you do have a very toxic situation, indeed. But please, in reporting on America pay attention to guns and a lack of attention in this nation to mental health. Our private health insurance does not wish to pay for mental health. Obamacare did recognize mental health but Republicans wish to do away with every aspect of Obama's Affordable Care Act.
El_Guero 06/20/2017
4. This is NOT commentary.
Christoph, You owe US an apology. Since I was a child, men have been assaulted by the Liberal Left. This is not extremism, this is MAIN STREAM Liberalism, the SO-CALLED MODERATES. YOU are doing just like the rest of the Liberals. You are spreading hate at a time when people are mourning this brutal assault. Or, if you prefer: Should I today, blame the Mosque for their being attacked by a deranged Liberal? Or, should I wait and give them time to mourn, before I connect the two? Wayne
jjnj0506 06/21/2017
5. Appalling
As an American living in the USA, I find extremely discouraging the false narrative in the media that the Spiegel reinforces. And that is that BOTH sides share the blame. That is absolutely not the case. Republicans have lied shamelessly and its base has lost all contact with reality: from claiming in several conservative media outlets that welfare recipients buy marijuana with food stamps to pushing the legend that President Obama was not born in America (while accepting the candidacy of Ted Cruz for President, having born in CANADA)....this is all happening while there is an investigation on Russia impacting our elections and the president is denying climate change and destroying the social safety net. Besides Kathy Griffin and her misguided sense of humor, what and how can you even dare to compare the republican dismantling of democracy in America with the weak complaints that occasionally the democrats dare to mumble in public? If anything, the only real complaint anyone could have against Democrats is that they are in a complete state of disarray and have no organized front against Trump. Anything else is a false equivalency unworthy of Der Spiegel. Maybe it is time for America to split up. Liberals and conservatives are both fed up with each other and we both agree we would have been better off if the South had won the Civil War.
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