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Professor Stephen Carter On Mail Bombs, Trump And Political Rhetoric


And, of course, this week has set off a lot of speculation in public soul-searching about the state of America and our politics. We turn now to Stephen Carter, professor at Yale Law School and author, columnist, for Bloomberg View. His most recent book is, "Invisible," a book about the remarkable Eunice Carter, his grandmother, a prosecutor took on Lucky Luciano. Stephen Carter joins us from Connecticut. Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN CARTER: It's always a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Lot of talk this week about how bitter and hateful so much political rhetoric has become and how that could inflame people to undertake acts of violence. As this week ends with a suspect in custody, how do you see this national soul-searching?

CARTER: Well, I think we're at a difficult but important moment. There is enormous pain in the country and has been for a long time. But there's an enormous viciousness in so much of the political rhetoric. And, of course, it does start with the president. And we can't pretend that his mockery and derision of his opponents makes no difference to political atmosphere.

I wish we could stop there, but we can't because the truth is, there is so much viciousness on either side, on both sides, that people don't really listen anymore to anyone but the people who agree with them and, frankly, the people who agree with them enthusiastically. That's a very dangerous thing. It's not the most divided we've ever been. We had a civil war, after all. But it's a very dangerous moment, and a moment when what we should be looking for on the national stage are the voices of calm and rationality.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the history of this because, of course, you mentioned the Civil War. I won't even try and make that argument. But in the 1960s, you had the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy. You had the bombings of the Weather Underground. George Wallace, an open bigot, running for president and threatening to run over protesters. With your view of history, what does this represent in ours? What's happened?

CARTER: I think it is quite possible that we're as divided as we were the 1960s, and in some ways, it's probably worse. It's true that we had political assassinations in the 1960s. And you and I were both coming of age then and it was a terribly difficult and painful and, in many ways, frightening time. And yet across all of that, we still had, at the national level, people who really thought their job was to calm things down.

And you may have seen, Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal this week suggested that on Tuesday, one week before the midterms, that all the candidates on both sides spend the day talking about the virtues of the other party. There was a time when that kind of rhetoric was actually common in America...

SIMON: Yeah.

CARTER: ...When people would often say, of course I respect this and this and this about my opponent. You don't see that anymore, and I don't think that's going to happen on Tuesday.

SIMON: President Trump has denounced the targeting of some of his critics. He has called for greater civility in politics. That has been called that's what he reads off the teleprompter. And then he'll go into a spontaneous oration, like the one last night at his rally in North Carolina.

CARTER: You know, the problem is, I'm all for greater civility. I wrote a book about civility. I believe in it deeply. I think it's an important virtue in politics, respecting each other across our differences, really trying to find our commonality. But with President Trump calling for greater civility and for calming things down, I have to say the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If he's going to say that and go on back to the way things were before, then we haven't gotten any further along. If he's going to say that and stick to it, then I think that would actually be a good thing for the country.

SIMON: And what about - I suspect some people who are supporters of the president will say, look, this man in custody was clearly troubled, clearly unbalanced. You can't blame anything he did on the president of the United States or political rhetoric because he - any more than you can blame a Beatles song for Mark David Chapman.

CARTER: My view about shootings is I always blame the person who did it. Bombings, I always blame the person who did it. But at the same time, it's still a signal that we all need to tone down the rhetoric. And I hope maybe this time we'll listen.

SIMON: Professor Stephen Carter at Yale. His latest book, "Invisible." Thanks so much for being with us, Stephen.

CARTER: It's always a pleasure. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.