This week, someone in America has taken it upon themselves to mail bombs to George Soros, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, the Democratic Rep. (and former chair of the Democratic National Committee) Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former US Attorney General Eric Holder, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, and former CIA director John Brennan. Brennan’s bomb arrived at CNN’s New York City office, leading to the prompt evacuation of the building. Robert De Niro, a prominent critic of the current president, also received a package with an explosive device inside. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the US Postal Service records images of mail that comes into its system, and a search of those images led to the discovery of more suspicious packages. How many more was not immediately clear.
There’s a thread connecting all of them, of course: each person on the list is a prominent member of the Democratic Party, and each — aside from De Niro — has been the subject of at least one conspiracy theory related to the 2016 American presidential election. Many of those theories were broadcast on Fox News, after having first spread through the swamps of talk radio and the conservative blogosphere. Today, they are more amplified than ever, with new conspiracies appearing as quickly as the old ones can be debunked.
While mail bombs are outside the bounds of normal political discourse by any conceivable measure, they are by no means unfamiliar in American political culture. Mail bombing is perhaps the most American form of political terrorism for a particular generation. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, planting bombs was a way for fringe elements to draw attention to the political issues of the day, whether those concerns were about the government, the environment, technology, or the Vietnam War. (Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, carried that tradition through the 1980s.)
In one study of New York City that looked at the period spanning January 1969 to October 1970, the authors found there were “about 370 bombings — most of them minor,” which averages to more than one bombing every two days. It was a common thing. In a blog post from 2009, The New York Times looked back on the political tumult of 1969: one of the historians they spoke to, Jeremy Varon, said young people believed “they could bomb old ideologies out of existence.” Another historian the Times quoted, Beverly Gage, said adults were focused on the youth, asking, “Why are our children doing this to us?”
In 1997, Philip Roth asked essentially the same question in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the suburbs, American Pastoral, which told the story of a seemingly perfect family rocked by the actions of their rebellious, anti-war teenager, who kills three people with her bombs. As Roth writes, for the protagonist’s teenage daughter, “being an American was loathing America,” but for her father, “loving America was something he could not let go of any more than he could have let go of loving his father and his mother, any more than he could have let go of his decency.” What’s unbearable to Roth’s protagonist is giving up the fiction of America; what’s unbearable to today’s domestic terrorist is the feeling that he’s losing his country to a shadowy, well-financed cabal acting explicitly on behalf of people who aren’t like him.
The 16-year-old from American Pastoral would be 66 today. She’d be part of the generation that grew up in the long shadow of the Vietnam War. If she’d left Newark, she might have established her career during the riotously rich ’80s and solidified both income and savings in the ’90s before rounding the curve, with children, into the 2000s. If she was one of the lucky ones, she might have survived 2008 with her savings intact. If not, she could have seen the things she worked so hard for evaporate into the mists of some bank’s fucked-up balance sheet, never to be seen or heard from again. She might see her children struggling with massive amounts of student loan debt that she’d know they’ll have no chance of paying off in their lifetime, and she might wonder, for a second, what went wrong.
The bombs of the ’60s and ’70s were mostly planted for political reasons. People opposed the Vietnam War or the president or the way American companies treated the environment, and not all were aimed at people. Many of The Weathermen’s bombs, for example, targeted buildings and politically significant places, like police departments. This week’s actions were explicitly aimed at people the president and his allies treat as enemies, and it was meant to make anyone who would support those people afraid.
The president admitted as much in a characteristically elliptical tweet, which blamed media coverage of his administration for causing the anger that might lead a person to mail a bomb. “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” he wrote. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!” By shifting the blame onto the media, one of Trump’s favorite punching bags, the president has implicitly legitimized this domestic terrorist’s actions as a valid expression of anger.
Mail bombs are an anachronism. It’s as though the person who sent them came of age before mass shooters or swattings but after World War II. The act of mailing bombs — as opposed to, say, holding a group of people hostage or shooting up a university — is easiest to parse as something generational. If millennials’ preferred form of domestic terrorism is the mass shooting — which one might link to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, which would have happened around the same impressionistic age for many millennials as The Weathermen’s bombings were for Baby Boomers — then it makes sense that the Baby Boomers’ preferred form of domestic terrorism is a detonation. (Although it’s certainly possible that this domestic terrorist is a millennial or Gen Xer who decided to use the postal service.)
Anyone who goes to the trouble of mailing their political opinion in the form of a bomb to a former president must feel deeply that something has been lost or taken from them. And it’s no coincidence that the bombs’ targets have, over the last half decade, become right-wing bogeymen whose names stand in for entire concepts and imagined wrongs. Right-wing cable news shows still regularly feature them as the cause of every problem in America.
Pizzagate happened the same way. A segment of the right-wing media linked Hillary Clinton to pedophilia and child trafficking in a Washington, DC pizza place, which eventually led a man to shoot up that pizza place, looking to rescue those same imagined children. These theories aren’t benign, and they don’t spring up in isolation. This week’s bomber probably frequented some of those same places, among more fringe outlets. As The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch noted, the bomb sent to Brennan by way of CNN bore a picture of an ISIS parody flag, which is a meme that circulates in right-wing spaces online.
Even so, a number of media personalities on the right have already begun to suggest that the bombs, which were real, are actually a liberal hoax. What does it mean that these people, who have millions of followers between them, refuse to accept reality, either for personal or political gain?
Yesterday in The New York Times, Alexander Soros, George Soros’ son, wrote about the hate his father receives. “My father acknowledges that his philanthropic work, while nonpartisan, is ‘political’ in a broad sense: It seeks to support those who promote societies where everyone has a voice,” the younger Soros wrote. “But something changed in 2016. Before that, the vitriol he faced was largely confined to the extremist fringes, among white supremacists and nationalists who sought to undermine the very foundations of democracy.” The edges become the center, and the president sits astride its heart.
Correction: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the former chair of the Democratic National Committee. A previous version of this story stated that she was the former chair of the Democratic National Convention.