A TIME special report
Hate, among all our base instincts, is the most distinctly human. In animals, violence and venom are tools of survival; in humans, of supremacy. Small, scared people hate, self-hating people hate, bullied and betrayed people hate, as though hate will make them large and safe and strong. The twisted writings of this latest class of attackers suggest they felt called to their hatreds as a duty. Robert Bowers allegedly blamed Jews for their outreach to refugees and vowed to repel “invaders” moving north through Central America as he set off to the synagogue: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” an account matching his name posted, like a martyr dispatched to a massacre. Accused mail bomber Cesar Sayoc stalked George Soros, the billionaire Holocaust survivor and Democratic donor, who conspiracy theorists claimed was funding that invasion–never mind that those armed invaders were nearly a thousand miles away and the main thing in their arms was their children. “Whites don’t kill whites,” a witness quoted Gregory Bush as saying; he was arrested in the murders of two black shoppers at a Kentucky grocery store, allegedly having failed to get into a predominantly black church nearby.
We’re having a master class on hate because we’ve no choice; it has moved from the part of our character we work hardest to suppress to the part we can least afford to ignore. Hate slipped its bonds and runs loose, through our politics, platforms, press, private encounters. And the further it travels, the stronger it grows. People unaccustomed to despising anyone, ever, find themselves so frightened or appalled by what they see across the divide that they are prepared to fight it hand to hand. Calls for civility are scorned as weak, a form of unilateral disarmament. President Trump calls for unity in the same breath that he undermines it, demonizing adversaries, minimizing threats, trivializing trauma. He didn’t consider canceling a political rally out of respect for the slain; he considered it, he said, because he was having a bad hair day.
So much attention is paid to the President’s lies that we can miss his radical honesty. He didn’t see any need to call the former Presidents in the wake of assassination attempts; “I think we’ll probably pass,” he said. That mail-bomb spree was a shame, he argued, because it slowed Republicans’ midterm momentum. His tweets of sympathy for the victims of the synagogue shooting were followed by color commentary on the World Series. The solution to such shootings, he suggested, was to bring back the death penalty: How better to fight violence than with more violence? And if there is a rising of dark and dangerous forces in the land, he believes, it means that “the Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly.”
Likewise, the evidence of his utter lack of empathy belies his great gift and political advantage–this ability he has to sense our darkest instincts and call to them, coax them out of hiding, when we’d much prefer not to see them at all. Of all the norms he violates, this is among the most disturbing: that Americans will always seek leaders who lift us up and bring us together rather than drag us down and tear us apart. Make America Great Again has been a brilliant, aspirational slogan for the resentful and aggrieved; but that road to greatness turns out to run through the smoking wreckage of institutions, values and national honor. Gone is the joy that comes from political battle that is not a fight to the death. When politics becomes blood sport, people actually die.
Here then is the challenge: our normal responses aren’t working. The spread of conspiracy theories as the “real truth” at least presumes that truth matters, even as the theories undermine it. Social networks designed to connect friends turn out to be expertly designed to create enemies. Fact-checking makes no difference; tribes trump truth. When reporters try to hold the President accountable for inflaming the hatred, he attacks them for bias, for fueling division. When partisans on the left call for fighting fire with fire, they validate the tactics that debase our discourse.
Caught in the cross fire is a public not so much enraged as exhausted, at a loss to explain or escape the ugly, intellectually barren fever swamps that now pass for our public square. Conspiracy theories flourish as a substitute for the hard work of actual knowledge. They grant those who embrace them a shortcut to superiority: average people believe what they hear on the evening news or read in the papers, but you are smarter, you know better, you see the patterns and plots behind these events, the “globalists” pulling the strings, the “deep state” undermining your mission. You can’t be fooled, you won’t be puppets, you know better, you know the truth.
So what to do? The most eloquent politicians who warn of the toll this is taking are mainly the ones departing the scene. Where will we find moral leaders in an age of abdication, when “elites” of all kinds are suspect, whether teachers or preachers or scientists or scholars?
If our past is a guide and comfort, it comes from where it always comes from. Look left, look right, not up or down. Leadership lies with the spirit of the Tree of Life synagogue, where victims included the dentist who offered his services at the free clinic, the brothers who had “not an ounce of hate in them,” as their rabbi said at their funeral, the couple married there more than 60 years ago, all mourned by the thousands who came out to stand vigil in silent solidarity. It lies with the postal workers going about their work even as more mail bombs turned up, and the neighbors in Kentucky who, in the wake of the grocery-store shootings, held a community meeting to discuss race and violence.
If the opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference, then the antidote to hate is engagement. It comes from the people who spent the weekend knocking on doors and staffing phone banks to get out the vote on Election Day. From the enterprise of technologists looking for ways to drain some of the toxins from our information streams. From employees who are letting their bosses know what kind of humane, sustainable culture they expect in one of the richest countries on earth. From church groups and civic clubs and marchers raising money for clothing drives or breast-cancer research or tree plantings. From teachers staying after school to tutor and coaches teaching their players about the difference between an opponent and an enemy, so they can take that wisdom with them into a public space that feels less like a sport than a war. Leadership will come from uncountable individual decisions to model kindness, to fight alienation, to get offline and into the streets or the classroom or the sanctuary and help someone in trouble.
This much is clear. Whatever happens on Tuesday, no one is coming to save us. We’ll have to do this ourselves.
Gibbs, a former editor-in-chief of TIME, is the Edward R. Murrow visiting professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government
This appears in the November 12, 2018 issue of TIME.