President Trump’s near-daily news briefings have moved beyond his usual gaslighting and political theater. Careless words about prematurely opening up the economy are empowering angry, sometimes gun-wielding protesters across the country, demanding an end to stay-at-home orders. It is no longer just a partisan exaggeration when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) warns that the president’s “unhinged rantings and call for people to ‘liberate’ states could also lead to violence.”
While most of us shudder at the prospect of domestic political violence, the deepening fractures that Trump’s often-flaming-hot rhetoric have fueled in the past four years are a painful example of just how corrosive words can be to our sense of community.
A half-century ago, the same kind of political speech contributed to the often-overlooked reaction to the deaths of four students protesting U.S. involvement in Cambodia during a demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. In the run-up to this tragic episode, the slashing attacks of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew enabled President Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” to shrug off and, in some cases, celebrate the shocking events on the Ohio campus. To them, the shootings represented a grimly satisfying, overdue “law and order” response to years of unrest.
Nixon chose Agnew for the 1968 ticket as a compromise between a GOP divided between liberal Northeasterners and Southern conservatives. Agnew was a candidate both sides could accept because he blurred the lines between the two. He had previously been an enthusiastic supporter of liberal New York governor Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination. But he got on Nixon’s radar by upbraiding Baltimore’s African American leadership during the unrest after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April. As a tough-talking but polished-looking Mid-Atlantic governor, Agnew mixed the law-and-order ideas of Alabama’s George Wallace with the middle-class respectability of a local PTA president.
The former Maryland governor proved to be surprisingly effective in reshaping the Republican Party in a more populist, anti-elite direction. His meteoric rise propelled Agnew to the cover of Life magazine, and he was voted the third-most-respected man in the country in a 1969 Gallup poll. But the pugilistic speeches that caused Agnew’s political star to rise also eroded Americans’ bonds of empathy at a time when the nation desperately needed statesmanship.