America’s political rhetoric has always been incendiary

As spring turned to summer, America’s political conversation was all about killing Donald Trump. You would have thought you were in a book by Bill O’Reilly. In May comedian Kathy Griffin had herself photographed holding a severed simulacrum of Trump’s head. During the shoot, she joked that she and the photographer would have to flee to Mexico. They didn’t, but the ensuing uproar cost the comic her New Year’s Eve sinecure on CNN.

In May and June, a Public Theater production of Julius Caesar cast in the title role a big guy with sandy hair and a red power tie. Trump supporters heckled Caesar’s death scene, shouting “This is violence against Donald Trump!” Lost in the ruckus was Shakespeare’s moral: Caesar’s assassins are destructive boobs who bring on the very dictatorship they fear.

American political rhetoric has ever been incendiary, from broadsides reviling the Stamp Tax to President Trump’s tweet storms. Workaday political words—campaign, war room,  battleground states—imply violence. More frequently than we like to admit, these terms cross the line from implication to incitement.

The first president to have his life threatened symbolically was George Washington, during his first foreign policy crisis, in summer 1793. The French Revolution, initially welcomed in

ANTI-McKINLEY CARTOON, 1896. ‘All Aboard for the Millennium.’
(The Granger Collection, New York)

America, had devolved into anarchic spectacle, plunging France into war and sending Louis XVI to the guillotine. On France’s fate, Americans split. The Republican Party, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, admired France at its bloodiest. Washington and Federalist allies, led by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, wanted America to steer clear of France’s wars.

Handling France became a theme of cabinet debate. In April 1793, Washington had issued a proclamation of neutrality; need he go public with further explanations? The Republican newspaper in Philadelphia, the national capital, was the National Gazette. Editor Philip Freneau put out the paper while moonlighting from a day job as a State Department clerk; Jefferson fed him useful tidbits. In August, Freneau published “A Funeral Dirge for George Washington,” describing in verse the president being led to the guillotine. Secretary of War Henry Knox, a Federalist, showed that issue of the Gazette at a cabinet meeting. In his private journal, Jefferson described the effect: “The president was much inflamed, got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself. [Washington ran] on much on the personal abuse which had been bestowed on him….[He said] that he had never repented but once…having slipped the moment of resigning his office, and that was every moment since. That by God he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation. That he had rather be on his farm than to be made emperor of the world…That that rascal Freneau sent him three of his papers every day, as if he thought he would become the distributor of his papers, that he could see in this nothing but an impudent design to insult him. He ended in this high tone.” Added Jefferson, “There was a pause.” No kidding. Imagine the best cabinet secretaries ever, sitting like schoolboys, wondering what the great man would blurt next.

A hundred years later, another wish for a president’s death ran in the New York Journal, whose owner, William Randolph Hearst, pioneered use of cartoons, banner headlines, and human-interest reporting. Hearst had political ambitions, presenting himself as a people’s tribune. In the 1896 and 1900 elections he and his papers backed populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan against pro-business Republican William McKinley. The Journal played rough. On January 30, 1900, Kentucky Governor-elect William Goebel was shot; he died four days later. Humorist Ambrose Bierce, a Hearst columnist, marked the event in verse: “The bullet that pierced Goebel’s chest/Cannot be found in all the West/Good reason: it is speeding here/To stretch McKinley on his bier.” A Journal editorial surveyed past assassinations and executions: French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, stabbed; Charles I, beheaded; and, of course, Julius Caesar. Those deaths, the Journal said, had good outcomes. “We invite our readers to think over this question,” the editors wrote. “The time devoted to it will not be wasted.”

Washington never responded to Freneau’s jabs, keeping silent amid French demands that rallied the public to him.  When he died in bed, in December 1799, the nation mourned.

Hearst’s abuse, doggerel and otherwise, failed to dent McKinley at the polls. He twice whipped Bryan, both times carrying New York by landslides. In September 1901, six months after his second inauguration, McKinley was attending a world’s fair in Buffalo when an assailant shot him. He died eight days later. Enraged Republicans blamed Hearst. In his first message to Congress, McKinley successor Theodore Roosevelt condemned “the reckless utterances” of journalists who “appeal to the dark and evil spirits of malice and greed, envy and sullen hatred…They cannot escape their share of responsibility for the whirlwind that is reaped.” In 1905, when Hearst ran for governor of New York, TR confidant Elihu Root revived Roosevelt’s charge, declaring that TR had Hearst in mind when he made it. Freneau and Hearst survived their brushes with odium. The National Gazette folded after a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia; Freneau later wrote poetry still sometimes reprinted. Defeated for governor, Hearst remained a media mogul, decorating his castle, San Simeon, with art and a movie star mistress.

Freneau’s maledictions obviously had no bad impact. Did Hearst’s? Could Kathy Griffin’s stunt, or the Public Theater’s casting? Pundits and historians talk about climates of opinion, expressed and molded by words; themselves writers, they naturally like to think that words make a genuine difference. But it’s difficult to trace the extent to which scattershot expressions of hatred, no matter how lethal or detailed, have practical effect. McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, lived in Cleveland; he likely never saw a copy of the New York Journal.

This does not make political assassins motiveless madmen. All our murdered presidents died at the hands of men of political conviction: John Wilkes Booth was a Confederate partisan; Czolgosz, an anarchist. Lee Harvey Oswald, a Marxist, had lived two years in the USSR. The craziest presidential assassin, Charles Guiteau—James Garfield’s murderer—claimed to belong to the Stalwarts, a Republican faction opposing Garfield’s nomination.

On June 14, Republican congressmen and staffers practicing for a charity ballgame in Alexandria, Virginia, came under fire by a rifleman who wounded four people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who spent a month in the hospital. A Capitol police officer at the scene killed shooter James Hodgkinson, who had traveled from his Illinois home to the Washington, DC, suburb to kill Republicans, a mission Democrats repudiated.

On a petition, Hodgkinson, a backer of independent Bernie Sanders, wrote “Trump Is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”  Sanders called the shooting despicable, adding, “Violence of any kind is unacceptable.”

It would be wrong to pin Hodgkinson’s rampage on any Democrat, even an internet frother. He made his own decision. But he, and other killers, have their reasons.