Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the continuing recriminations following the recent massacres. The effort to blame the massacres on Trump reflect an ongoing effort to control speech by declaring certain words to be “triggering.” In this case, the meaning is literal.
Here is the column:
The final death tolls in El Paso and Dayton were not even established when the chorus of recriminations began. Several Democratic candidates like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg accused President Trump of stoking the hatred leading to the shootings, while Senator Kamala Harris insisted the victims were the “incredible consequence” of the rhetoric used by Trump. Senator Cory Booker went even further, saying not only that Trump was “particularly responsible” and “complicit” in the mass shootings last weekend, but so is everyone who is “not actively working against hate.”
Many of us have denounced the rhetoric of Trump on immigration, the courts, and the media. However, there is a familiar ring to some of the coverage following the massacres that Trump is responsible for the shooting because the language he uses is “triggering.” Columnist Mehdi Hasan said, “The president may not be pulling the trigger or planting the bomb, but he is enabling much of the hatred behind those acts by giving aid and comfort to angry white men by offering them clear targets.”
There have long been efforts to limit speech as “triggering” to others. Colleges and universities have created “safe spaces” and implemented “trigger warnings” to protect students from opposing views or values. Faculty and students have demanded sanctions against those engaging in speech perceived as threatening or demeaning, including the poorly defined concept of “microaggressive” words. The result is a type of speech control that redefines censorship as merely “sheltering.”
In news coverage, “triggering” has taken on a literal meaning that Trump virtually pulled the trigger on victims by adding to a raging environment. It does not matter that a fair amount of violence is committed by leftist groups like Antifa. Such acts are often portrayed by advocates as merely “self defense.” The CNN special “United Shades of America” with Kamau Bell featured what Bell called the “redneck revolt” of gun toting liberals who are battling the “alt right.” Bell followed them to gun ranges and asked why “more white people” are not joining their ranks. Among the “good guys” featured was Willem Van Spronsen, who later attempted to firebomb an immigration center and died in a shootout with police.
Does that make CNN culpable in “triggering” Van Spronsen? Of course not. Yet it would appear from the coverage that Trump is still responsible for El Paso shooter Patrick Crusius, who referenced Trump and said “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” It did not matter that both of these individuals apparently have serious mental health issues. It was the rhetoric of Trump that was responsible for the crimes of Crusius. It also does not matter that Conner Betts, the shooter in Dayton, described himself as a “leftist” Democrat who supported the candidacy of Senator Elizabeth Warren. He reportedly wrote, “I want socialism, and I will not wait for the idiots to finally come round to understanding.”
Trump supporters have been assaulted for wearing MAGA hats or overtly supporting the president. Protesters have shouted death threats outside the home of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. An MSNBC host told viewers that Trump was “talking about exterminating Latinos.” A new Hollywood movie, described as a satire, features the hunting of MAGA types called “deplorables,” the name Democratic candidate Hillary Clintongave to Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign. None of those stories led to condemnations of “triggering” rhetoric by Trump critics.
Few Americans will tolerate outright censorship. But 20 years ago, writers began to push an alternative way to silence their critics by limiting their words as “triggering” or threatening. They could claim they were not censoring a viewpoint, only the words used to express it. Yet the result is the same in curtailing what others say. The concept of “triggering” language has become so mainstream today that news hosts now nod in silent acceptance when guests denounce the use of common terms.
On “Meet the Press” last weekend, Eddie Glaude, Princeton professor of African American studies, declared the very use of the term “illegal immigrant” may have caused these shootings. He said, “You set the stage for people who are even more on the extreme to act violently.” Glaude, who previously called the immigration policies of Trump “terrorism,” interrupted another guest, who was noting that laws on the books make such immigration illegal. “No human being is illegal!” Glaude declared.
For years, activists tried to shame others into dropping any reference to the illegal status of some immigrants by claiming the term is verboten. It does not matter that the term appears in laws and has been routinely used by the Supreme Court, including decisions by such liberal icons as William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens. It is now “triggering” language and, according to Glaude, may actually cause massacres.
Even expressions of empathy can be considered “triggering.” After the shootings, Trump condemned the violence and white supremacy, expressed sympathy for the victims, and ordered all American flags to fly at half mast until August 8. Frank Figliuzzi, an NBC News national security contributor, claimed the flag order was “triggering” because the date, 8/8, could be viewed as a reference to 88, which could be a reference to HH, the eighth letter in the alphabet, which could be viewed as a salute to “Heil Hitler.” Thus, Trump unwittingly or wittingly signaled neo-Nazis.
Figliuzzi expressed shock, “No one is thinking about this. No one is giving him the advice. Or he is rejecting the advice.” There is another possibility that “no one is thinking about this” because it is perfectly insane. More importantly, what Figliuzzi refers to as the “little things” often leads to the limiting of a big thing called “free speech.” That some deranged neo-Nazi would celebrate the coincidence of flags being reraised on 8/8 does not mean that we should all change our actions or speech accordingly.
Trump did not help himself with disastrous visits to El Paso and Dayton, where he was denounced for such moments as giving a “thumbs up” in a photo with an orphaned baby and bragging about how big his crowds were at a rally. He then reportedly complained about the lack of good press out of the trip. However, it ultimately did not matter what he said because his very presence was the trigger. Catherine Wicker, executive president of the Texas College Democrats, said he had “no business” visiting Texas because “what he says to people of color is triggering.”
There is no sense of hypocrisy in any of this for those who use shootings to score political points by denouncing others for doing the same thing. It is inevitable that some will follow massacres like political carpetbaggers to make easy gains. Yet none of these gun triggers were pulled, literally or figuratively, by Trump or Warren or Fox or CNN. We live in an age of rage, however, there remains a big difference between rage and a rampage.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.