It was shocking to read over the weekend that Republican Sen. Rand Paul had been attacked at home in Kentucky, and then to learn that he had been mowing his own lawn when his next-door neighbor blindsided him with so much “high velocity severe force,” according to his spokesman, that it may take the senator weeks or even months to recover.
We don’t know what kind of bad blood, if any, might have existed between the senator and his neighbor Rene Boucher. But we do know that if there’s any place a senator should be able to feel safe, it’s in his own yard. That the attack on Paul came from his own neighbor, from within his own community, is the most disconcerting of all because, by my count, it is part of a growing list of instances in which Americans are literally becoming our own worst enemies.
Whether it was the attack on Paul, or the Illinois man who shot Rep. Steve Scalise last June, or the gunman over the weekend responsible for the horrific shooting at a church in rural Texas, or even the increasingly hateful, vile language Americans seem to be spewing at each other on social media when the subject of politics comes up, it’s hard to understand how we got here as a country — where our neighbors are our attackers and our enemies seem somehow to have been among us all along.
The new normal
We know that one piece of this terrible new normal is social media, which lets anyone, anywhere tell everyone else exactly what they think of them. Threats, lies and any number of terrible human instincts are no longer confined to face-to-face interactions or crazy letters written in lipstick on paper towels.
Another piece of this has to be ascribed to our political leadership. Both Republicans and Democrats raise money, feed themselves and pay their salaries with messages designed to demonize the other party — and increasingly to demonize factions within their own. Emails from my inbox this week from fundraising groups: “RINO Commits to Run for Re-election,” “Patricia, They’re Lying,” “A Truly Truly Disgusting Ad,” “BUSTED” and “SHOCKING.”
Some members of Congress use the same language in a bid to keep their jobs and live to fight another day. Most members of Congress don’t engage, but they also rarely object, especially when it comes to President Donald Trump.
For all of his talent for communicating with his base, this is a president who lashes out at his fellow Americans, often at the lowest moments they’ll ever know in their lives, just before they bury a husband or when they’ve buried a child. The White House press office calls this “counterpunching.” But it’s certainly not called leadership.
Worse, it’s a green light to the country, including our children, that attacking our fellow Americans, making enemies out of people we share so much with, is not only acceptable but presidential.
The ones making the social media piece of this possible are American technology companies, which last week seemed entirely uninterested in being a part of a solution to the Russian hacking scandal, in which the United States’ most dangerous foreign adversary may have used our own technology, our own voices and even our own president against us.
We know the Russians created and placed ads on Facebook and Twitter to inflame our divisions before, during and after the elections. But the Facebook and Twitter executives who testified last week seemed to balk at the idea that an attempt by foreign nationals to influence an election should be a violation of their company-wide terms of service.
Even if the companies do figure out how to keep foreign enemies out of our political discourse, it’s hard to see what Russia could do in the future that we aren’t already doing to ourselves. They wanted to divide us, but we’re already doing it. They wanted to sow chaos and prevent progress.
We’ve done that. They wanted to make Americans suspicious, and even enemies, of each other. How much longer will we go until we as Americans complete that job, too?
Still good neighbors
Even though the crisis we’re facing is embedded in our politics, I see the solution as one outside of our political system. Americans need to forget politics for a minute, strengthen their own communities and reach out to their neighbors — maybe starting with their next-door neighbors. In the very worst of circumstances, whether it was the hurricanes this summer, the shooting in Las Vegas last month or the neighbors who raced to stop the shooter in Texas on Sunday, Americans still protect each other. We still help each other. That hasn’t changed.
Rand Paul is actually one of those Americans.
In 2015, after Sen. Harry Reid had a terrible treadmill accident and nearly lost an eye, he returned to the Senate for work, still bruised and in many ways struggling. He went to the Senate floor to deliver a typically fiery and partisan speech, but he began by thanking Paul. Even though their politics were diametrically opposed, Reid said that Paul had reached out to him after his accident and, as an ophthalmologist, had helped him through his entire recovery.
“I want the people of Kentucky to know how thoughtful and considerate and kind you’ve been to me over these months,” Reid said.
Reid and Paul both knew what it’s so hard to remember online, or in the heat of a campaign, or as the target of an outside force trying to bring our country down — that some things are more important than politics and that nothing is more important for our country’s long-term stability than the way we treat our fellow Americans every day.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.