Max Boot: What is happening to our country?

President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he leaves the stage after speaking to supporters during a rally at Southern Illinois Airport Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Murphysboro, Ill. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

I am so sad. I am so heartbroken. What is happening to our country?

How can we live in an America where a gunman can barge into a synagogue and open fire, reportedly screaming "All Jews must die"?

How can we live in an America where someone - the FBI has arrested a Trump supporter named Cesar Sayoc - can send pipe bombs to, among others, former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., financier George Soros, former CIA director John Brennan and CNN?

This is not what America is about. We are a country dedicated to freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion. We are a nation of immigrants from all corners of the globe brought together in mutual dedication to the "self-evident" truths "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." All "men" means, in the language of the 18th century, all people of whatever gender or color or creed.

There is no exception for liberals or Jews or critics of the president.

Tolerance for political and religious differences is a non-negotiable part of the social contract in the United States. It is the very core of our national identity, even if it has all too often been honored more in the breach than the observance. We settle our political differences through debate followed by voting. Political terrorism and sectarian bloodletting - these are the sorts of horrors that occur in the Balkans or the Middle East. Not here. Not in the land of the free. We're better than this. We're Americans.

Except now the horror show has arrived on our shores.

The fault does not lie, as President Donald Trump insists, with those in the media (e.g., "lowly rated CNN") who have the temerity to question and criticize him. It is the job of the press to hold those in power to account, and the press has recently done a magnificent job of discharging its constitutional responsibility. Has the media gotten everything right? Of course not. But it has gotten a lot more right than a president who lies with impunity and abandon.

Nor does the fault lie, as Trump's supposedly reasonable supporters insist, with "both sides." For example, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted: "Why is it so hard to accept that a clearly deranged man carried out deranged acts? The 'false flag' conspiracy theories on one side & the 'it's Trump's fault' on the other shows how unhinged politics has become. This isn't incivility. It's a society that has lost common sense."

I, too, have criticized the incivility of Democrats. Hounding officials in restaurants is a mistake. Comparing Trump to Hitler is wrong. But those errors cannot be spoken of in the same breath with terrible crimes such as sending pipe bombs or opening fire in a synagogue.

To be clear, the investigation into Saturday's attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is only just beginning, and there is more to learn about Sayoc's apparent infatuation with Trump. But it also should be clear to all that holding the president of the United States to account for his hateful rhetoric is not the same thing as subscribing to lunatic "false flag" conspiracy theories that ricochet around the right-wing world. In their eagerness to protect their leader, Republicans are guilty of the very sin they have spent years decrying - false moral equivalence.

Extremism has been present in America for a long time. But Trump is applying a match to the kindling.

Trump calls Democrats "evil" and "crazy." He accuses them of being "treasonous" and "un-American." He claims they are in league with MS-13 gang members. He says they are trying to open our borders to criminals and to turn America into Venezuela - a bankrupt socialist dictatorship. He denounces the media as "the enemy of the people." He applauds a congressman who assaulted a reporter and calls for his political opponent to be locked up. He singles out minorities such as Waters for opprobrium, and he promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that hold George Soros responsible for everything from the Central American caravan to protests against Brett Kavanaugh.

When Trump talks about "globalists," the far right hears "Jews." When Trump says there were "fine people" on both sides in Charlottesville, Virginia, the far right hears official approval. There is so much anti-Semitic filth online now. I see it every day on Twitter and in my email inbox. Normally I tune it out. Just background noise. But others are listening.

And Trump continues his incendiary rhetoric even after the tragic consequences have become clear. On Friday, after a pro forma denunciation of political violence, Trump laughed as a group of black conservatives at the White House chanted "Fake News!" He echoed their chants of "Lock him up!" about Soros. Hours later, he presided over a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, where supporters chanted "CNN sucks." Asked by reporters whether he would tone down his hateful rhetoric, he defiantly replied, "I could really tone it up." Asked if he bore any responsibility for what is happening, he answered, "There's no blame. There's no anything."

In times of crisis, we look for the president to bind our wounds, to overcome partisanship, to unite the country. Trump is doing the opposite. He is deliberately exacerbating our divisions for partisan gain. He is risking widespread political violence so that he and his Republican supporters can hold onto office.

I am so sad. I am so heartbroken that our president is acting this way.

Max Boot | The Washington Post

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right."