Gehrke: To fix our toxic political climate, we need to start at the top, or these bomb attempts won’t be the last

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

It’s clear that Cesar Sayoc is a disturbed individual.

His rap sheet is a mile long, littered with threats of violence. His van is a mobile shrine to toxic political hatred.

It boiled over when, according to the FBI, Sayoc cobbled together 13 crude pipe bombs and sent them by mail to mainly leading figures in the Democratic Party, a shocking act of what can only be described as domestic terrorism.

As troubling as all of that is, there is another certainty: He is not alone, and we have no idea how many more like him are out there, people teetering on the brink of violence, waiting for that little nudge to coax them over the edge.

We saw the hatred erupt again Saturday, when, authorities say, a neo-Nazi went on a shooting rampage at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing and wounding a number of churchgoers and police officers.

They didn’t get there on their own. They were pushed by unrelenting caustic rhetoric that has fueled hatred and mistrust, demonized opponents and dehumanized dissenters.

Think of the shooting of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords in 2011, an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, a shooting at a California Jewish center in 2015, a shooting at a congressional Republican baseball practice in Virginia in 2017. And think about a Utah man indicted earlier this month for sending ricin-laced letters to the president and others.

After every incident, we hear calls for softening our rhetoric, often from people who silently watched the damage being done or, like President Donald Trump, helped sow the seeds of hate.

Certainly political hate predated the rise of Trump. He merely added gasoline to the fire ignited by talk radio provocateurs, internet agitators and cable television shoutfests, their messages spread even more broadly through social media.

I am not saying the president is responsible for Sayoc’s attempted pipe bomb attacks. But he absolutely bears responsibility for his own corrosive political rhetoric, his savage and divisive attacks, and the toxicity they have created in our nation.

Moreover, he’s proved he doesn’t understand the damage he’s done and shows no signs of letting up. Even as bombs were being pulled out of the mail, he alluded to a conspiracy theory that they might be a false-flag operation to help Democrats.

He blamed the media — whom he frequently refers to as an “enemy of the people” — for the public’s anger and skipped around the country, blithely praising a congressman for physically assaulting a reporter (the congressman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge), calling Democratic supporters “mobs,” questioning whether the latest “bombs” were real, savaging his political foes, proudly referring to himself as a nationalist, and then absolving himself of his role in creating a climate of hostility.

He has no interest or inclination or ability to even attempt to unite a country and, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Last year, a report from the Pew Research Center illustrated how bad the divide in this country has become.

In 1994, just 16 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats had a “very unfavorable” view of the other party. By 2017, that level had more than doubled, with 45 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats viewing the opposing party very unfavorably.

We are better than this and need to do better. And I think we can.

In this state, we have examples of elected leaders from both parties who understand that words matter.

One is Gov. Gary Herbert. Sure, sometimes he’s wrong on the issues, but aside, perhaps, from some overheated rhetoric directed at the federal government, the governor’s tone is typically one of inclusion, compromise and moderation.

“While I was elected as a Republican, I am the governor for all Utahns,” Herbert said. “Although my own approach begins with conservative principles, I have consistently asked my administration to be inclusive in process. I believe we get better, more stable outcomes when we listen and learn from the experience and perspective of others.”

I’ve been covering politics in this state for more than 20 years and obviously there have been times when I’ve run across a lot of bad ideas — but not a lot of bad people. With a few unfortunate exceptions, Utah’s political leaders don’t treat their opponents as just Republicans or Democrats; they’re human beings who are generally good, striving for similar goals — good communities, happy families, healthy kids, a nice place to live.

I know, it sounds like a lot of sunshine and rainbows considering the context of our current national political hellscape. But if we start by appreciating our common goals, then it’s easier to argue passionately about how to reach our common goals without trying to blow up one another.