Why Leaders Must Watch Their Words

The other day, the outgoing administration made a most unusual statement. It  was titled, “Proclamation on 850th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket.” Becket, for the uninitiated, was a Catholic saint who was murdered by followers of King Henry II in the year 1170. The statement heralded Becket as a “martyr” who died making a “courageous stand for religious liberty” before veering off into tangents that railed against “global bureaucrats” and abortion rights. Were that all that there were to the story, we might dismiss it as simply another odd occurrence of the Trump White House. But there is more. There is a moral to the tale of St. Becket that the President, and his GOP underlings, would do well to heed. 


Becket and King Henry, the man ultimately responsible for his death, did not start out as enemies. In fact, they were close companions. The archbishop tutored the younger ruler, giving Henry valuable tutelage in the affairs of statecraft. But relations between the two soured when Henry attempted to bend the English church to his will. Becket, a devout Catholic, pushed back against Henry’s predations, and a power struggle ensued between the men. Henry, in a moment of blind rage, shouted “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest!” forgetting, for a moment, that as the head of state, he had the power to order death with a simple word. 


Several of Henry’s knights, however, did not forget this. They took his words as a command, rode for Becket’s church, and slew him in the abbey. The news of the archbishop’s murder spread throughout England, and soon reached the ears of King Henry himself. The monarch, upon hearing of the death of his beloved mentor, locked himself in his room and mourned, realizing, too late, the awesome and terrible power he commanded. 


Trump has certainly never heeded the lesson of this story. He lies with reckless abandon, uses vulgar insults for anyone he deems his enemy, and calls for the prosecution of his political opponents. At times, his relentless raging has nearly reaped disastrous consequences. Many of us can probably recall, for example, how his insults of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un brought us perilously close to war. And during the Black Lives Matter protests, Trump, unable and unwilling to console or heal a broken nation, instead openly fantasized about unleashing “vicious dogs” on peaceful protesters. During the Presidential debates, he told the white supremacist Proud Boys organization to “stand by” - which they took as an instruction to wait to unleash their violence on behalf of the President after the election. 


Sometimes the President’s words have nearly had tragic consequences. After repeatedly hearing Trump refer to reporters as “the enemy of the people,” a supporter named Cesar Sayoc took it upon himself to mail pipe bombs to prominent journalists and Democrats. After hearing Trump’s racist fearmongering about looters and rioters, a young supporter went to Kenosha, Michigan, and murdered two people. And there is no reason to think that the violence spurred by Trump’s words will abate. 


Over the past two months, the President has repeatedly insisted (without evidence) that the election was stolen from him due to nonexistent mass voter fraud. Because the President promulgated these lies, some of his supporters have decided to act on them. In Philadelphia, two Trump supporters, at least one of whom was a supporter of the right-wing QAnon conspiracy, drove to a vote-counting center armed with two handguns, an AR-15, and 160 rounds of ammunition, where they were immediately arrested by police. In Texas, a former Dallas police captain decided to conduct an “investigation” with several of his friends. Soon, they identified a man they believed to be involved in voter fraud, who was, in reality, an innocent air-conditioning repairman. The Captain tracked him down, ran him off the road, pulled him from his vehicle, and pointed a gun at his head. When the actual police arrived some time later, he demanded that they arrest the repairman and search his truck for fraudulent ballots.


When the police searched the truck, all they found were assorted parts for air conditioners.


Trump’s election conspiracies haven’t resulted in serious injuries - yet. But given enough time, they will. Yet the President is not solely responsible for spreading these lies; also responsible are the feckless GOP officials who have stood by him and repeated his nonsense. And perhaps none have embraced his insane theories more than the GOP Senators from Georgia, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. 


Perdue and Loeffler have gone out of their way to demonstrate their unflinching loyalty to the President. They have howled that the elections in Georgia were rigged, that the President actually won the state, and disparaged any Georgia politician (like Brad Raffensberger) who dares acknowledge reality. They have backed his conspiracies, not because they believe any of what he says, but because they think it will help them win reelection on January 5th. They have applied this logic to every single stance that they take. Perdue, for example, was against giving any stimulus checks to everyday Americans. But when Trump came out in favor of those checks, he had a sudden change of heart (his opponent, Jon Ossoff, has supported $2000 checks all along). Loeffler, who initially called herself a moderate, has linked arms with the radical  right, and become the one of the most pro-Trump senators in Congress. She even went as far to deploy baseless allegations of child abuse against her oppoent, Revernd Raphael Warnock. They do this because they do not believe that what they say matters. They do not think that what they say has any power.


So this January, remind them. Remind them that the truth still matters. Remind them that their words still matter. Remind them that leaders must always watch what they say. 


Make sure that, after January 5th, Loeffler and Perdue begin collecting those unemployment benefits that they fought so hard against. Henry only learned that words have consequences after it was already too late.


So make sure that the GOP learns it right now.