Something is wrong with America’s political culture, and Cesar Sayoc, the alleged “MAGA bomber,” can help illustrate what it is. What drove Sayoc to allegedly send incendiary devices to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros? Was he just insane, or was he turning to politics to find his ultimate meaning? Was his attack the expression of America’s eroding civility?
Just over one year ago, I warned that James Hodgkinson, the congressional baseball game shooter who almost killed Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), offered a warning about turning politics into a religion. That may seem an odd concept, but it helps explain why liberals and conservatives have become more bloodthirsty about political disputes, and why some have vocally encouraged harassment and even violence against their political opponents.
Shortly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, National Review‘s David French wrote, “I’m beginning to get a sense of what it was like to be alive in ancient times when a marauding warlord melted down your village’s golden calf. Weeping. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments. Wearing of vagina hats. Their god failed to protect the village, and now he’s a bracelet on the warlord’s wrist.”
This visceral reaction revealed that so many Americans had placed their ultimate loyalty and identity in their political tribe, and that made the victory of their opponent an existential crisis.
Aristotle wrote that man is a political animal, and by that he meant that human beings flourish best in the context of a shared tribe — a community that gives individuals a sense of identity and meaning, the belief that they are part of something larger than themselves.
This tribal instinct binds together families, towns, churches, and nations, but it needs to be directed to the right things. Augustine’s “The City of God” presented a model of civility by separating politics (the City of Man) from religion (the City of God). It’s not that politics doesn’t matter, he argued, but a Christian’s ultimate loyalty is to God.
This Christian model of civility inspired America’s pluralistic culture, enabling disagreement on fundamental issues even while Americans remain united as a country. America is built on the notion that politics exists to enable human beings to do more important things.
Cesar Sayoc emphatically rejected that notion, and he provides key insights into why Americans are rejecting civility.
1. His father left when he was young.
Cesar Sayoc was a boy when his father left the family, The New York Times reported. This may seem an odd place to look for insight, but children who grow up without their fathers are more likely to end up poor, to struggle in school, and to engage in violent crime. About 24.7 million kids in America grow up without their fathers.
So why aren’t there more “MAGA bombers”? Millions can and do overcome the disadvantage of fatherlessness. Sayoc’s story reveals something terrifying, however: their chances of doing so decrease as communities fall apart.
In his new book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) rightly acknowledges that loneliness and isolation lie at the heart of increasing political rancor.
Americans are becoming increasingly isolated from one another. Sasse grew up in a neighborhood where parents had an unspoken bond, where children could roam free, and where the ordinary joys of life provided a sense of belonging. Today, Americans are more mobile, less rooted, and less likely to know their neighbors well.
Sasse told the terrifying story of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, which killed approximately 739 people over five days. Most residents were able to survive the heat wave, but the poor, the elderly, and the isolated were most at risk.
Many Chicagoans had neighbors who cared about them, who checked up on them and — in many cases — kept them alive during the heat wave. Others were socially isolated, however, and no one even knew that they were dead until days later, when they started to stink. Hundreds died alone, uncared for, and without being missed.
Sayoc grew up without a father, and as he grew up, he drifted. As Americans form fewer rooted communities and increasingly look for meaning and relationships online, opportunities for men in a community to become a surrogate father start to dry up. Americans need to think seriously about the impacts of mobility and community breakdown.
2. “A lost dog.”
Most Americans understand that partisan political rhetoric often involves hyperbole. Trump calls hostile media outlets “the enemy of the people,” but he still answers their questions in press briefings. Democrats denounce Trump as Hitler, but a great many of them still refuse to support impeachment.
This rhetoric is problematic, and it is most likely to inspire violence in a few unstable people. As it turns out, Sayoc seems to fit that profile.
Over the weekend, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore shared footage of Cesar Sayoc at a “Make America Great Again” rally in February 2017. In his Instagram post showing the footage, Moore described the alleged bomber as “a lost dog with no direction home.”
Make no mistake: Sayoc is fully responsible for his actions. However, “lost dog” does help explain his mental state — and his social isolation.
Debra Gureghian, the general manager of New River Pizza and Fresh Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale, where Sayoc worked as a delivery-truck driver, told The Washington Post he was “crazed.”
She noted that his delivery truck was covered in images of “puppets with their heads cut off, mannequins with their heads cut off, Ku Klux Klan, a black person being hung, anti-gay symbols, torching, bombings, you name it, it was all over his truck.” Gureghian described Sayoc as “very angry and angry at the world, at blacks, Jews, gays. He always talked about, ‘if I had complete autonomy none of these gays or these blacks would survive.”
How does someone not only embrace such ugly vitriol, but go so far as to identify with it? Social isolation and online anger may help explain it.
Ronald Lowy, a longtime lawyer for Sayoc’s family, spoke to The New York Times on behalf of the family. He described a “lack of contact” for “all of these years.” Family members said they asked him to get help, but he refused.
Sayoc started traveling the country working as a stripper. His youngest sister, Tina Villasana, only learned that he had gotten married when a reporter asked about his divorce in 2004! He had been married to a fellow stripper for six years.
Sayoc lost his home to foreclosure, saw his finances dwindle, and declared bankruptcy. He even reportedly distrusted banks so much that he would carry his savings with him in a silver briefcase.
When his mother offered to take him in, “he just expressed hate for her, didn’t trust her, refused her efforts to encourage him to get help,” Lowy recalled. “Whenever she’d confront him with the truth, he’d call her a liar and be in denial.”
Sayoc also developed a long criminal record. He was arrested for petit larceny in 1992 and 2014, the Daily Mail reported. In 2004, he was arrested twice in the span of five weeks for possession of drugs — steroids and testosterone — with intent to distribute. He was arrested for grand theft in 2013 and petty theft in 2014. In May 2015, police arrested him for shoplifting from a Walmart in Palm Beach.
An angry man, socially isolated, can become a threat to himself and others. Without family, friends, and a community to balance out the partisan vitriol, he chose to double down on anger.
3. Finding a father in Trump.
After Sayoc was arrested, Lowy — the family’s lawyer — made a particularly interesting statement.
“This was someone lost, he was looking for anything and he found a father in Trump,” the lawyer told CNN.
The “MAGA bomber” claimed to be a member of the Seminole Native American tribe, but his father is Filipino and his mother Italian. (The Seminole tribe denied his claims.) It seems Sayoc was searching for an identity, one he found in defending President Trump.
In “Them,” Sasse warned that Americans are increasingly defining themselves in terms of “anti-tribes,” finding identity and community in their shared hatred of political enemies. It seems Sayoc wholeheartedly joined the online Trump anti-tribe, and unleashed his anger at Democrats with this bomb threat.
Sayoc allowed his allegiance to Trump to define him, and he grew so angry at Democrats’ inciting rhetoric that he decided to lash out.
Something may have snapped inside him when he heard former attorney general Eric Holder’s declaration, “When they go low, we kick them.”
“He was saying you can’t speak against the president,” Sayoc’s cousin told The Washington Post. “The next guy who says we want to kick them when they’re down, he’s going to learn not to say that.”
Something must have gotten lost in translation. Holder’s comment — ugly as it was — was not a reference to “kicking Republicans when they’re down,” but rather an inversion of former first lady Michelle Obama’s statement, “When they go low, we go high,” a reference to political rhetoric. Michelle Obama later condemned Holder for his inciting language.
Shane Mekeland, a Republican candidate for Minnesota’s state House, blamed Democrats like Holder for inspiring the incivility that led a man to punch him out of nowhere, leaving him with a concussion and the inability to campaign outside without getting a headache.
The Democrats’ rhetoric was disgusting, but it does not justify engaging in violence against them. For a man who essentially worshiped Trump and put his identity in politics, however, something must be done.
Americans have rightly condemned the MAGA bomber, and President Trump said he will be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law.” But Americans must also learn civility from this tragic story.
The United States works as a pluralistic society when Americans realize that there are more important things than politics. The founders created a political system to protect minorities, so that no faction could hold complete control. Whoever puts his or her entire identity in politics is sure to be disappointed.
The greatest threats to America come from within. Americans need to see themselves as fellow citizens, rather than hateful political enemies. Republicans and Democrats are neighbors, and everyone will be better off if we can put politics in its proper (limited) place and return to civility.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.