Messitte editorial: Harsh political rhetoric led to Kent State shootings

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the killings of student Vietnam War protestors on the Kent State University campus in Ohio, a related editorial co-written by President Zach Messitte appears in The Washington Post.

Messitte’s coauthors of “Harsh rhetoric tears us apart — and can make violence seem acceptable: The lessons of the 1970 Kent State shootings” are Charles Holden and Jerald Podair. The three also are coauthors of the recent book Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America.

The authors state that in President Trump’s near-daily news briefings, “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.”

They write, “Democracy is always a rough-and-tumble enterprise, but Agnew’s harsh rhetoric, like Trump’s daily briefings, was calculated to vilify opponents for short-term political gain. Agnew had, much like Trump does, a knack for holding the spotlight and giving voice to the anger and frustrations of the working-class white base that Nixon constructed, and that Trump so effectively marshals and desperately needs.”

The aftermath of the Kent State shootings “ought to help us keep our eyes open to the dangers of political rhetoric that offers no way back to a common purpose or our shared humanity,” they write. “While it might prove beneficial politically in the short term, it comes at the expense of further ripping the country apart.”


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