LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting at a baseball field in Virginia - a Republican representative, Steve Scalise, and others - there were lots of offers of thoughts and prayers and then lots of accusations and finger pointing and I told you so's. Has our political discourse, online and off, coarsened past the point of no return? Jay Cost and Erin Gloria Ryan join us now to discuss that. He's a contributor to The Weekly Standard. And she's a senior editor at The Daily Beast. Welcome to you both.
ERIN GLORIA RYAN: Hi.
JAY COST: Thank you very much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As part of our reporting on Wednesday's shooting, NPR covered the political activities of the shooter - his outspokenness. He'd volunteered for Bernie Sanders. He was active on Facebook. He wrote lots of letters to his local paper criticizing Republicans. I want to start with you, Jay. Do you see the attack, Wednesday, as an isolated atrocity or something that flowed directly from the state of our politics?
COST: I think that it is probably a mix of both. I mean, it's hard to look at his political involvement and not conclude that it flowed from our politics. But the overwhelming majority of Americans who are politically active and deeply engaged on one side or another, you know, don't take arms up against their political opponents.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's not forget, though, that after the election we saw a man come up from North Carolina to shoot up a restaurant here in D.C. targeting liberals. Erin, what are your views on this? Is this something that affects both sides equally?
RYAN: The fact of the matter is a person who is disturbed will put their disturbance into whatever bucket fits. So, like, they're always going to be people who are unhinged, deranged, not receiving the sort of care that they need to not be violent individuals. And it doesn't really matter at what point we are in history and what the discourse is like, violence is going to happen. It's not a matter of right and left wing. And I think it shouldn't be a contest over who is the most righteous. It's a tragedy. And we should, you know, reflect on that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jay, the other thing, though, that we've seen after this election is a spike in hate crimes, in hate speech, chanting at Latino students, Muslims being denigrated. Has this election shifted something fundamental in our society where anything goes?
COST: You know, that's hard to say. It's hard to judge because I think it's important to bear in mind, as well, that, you know, our country has become substantially more diverse over the last couple of generations. We've had past eras where, you know, you've seen major spikes in immigration, which prompt a nativist kind of response.
It happened in the 1850s in response to the wave of Irish immigration. And it happened in the 19-teens, 1920s after the second wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. And, you know, we have had what you probably could call a third wave of immigration coming from Latin America and Asia over the last, you know, 25 years or so.
And it's hard to judge whether or not this is prompted by the 2016 election or if the 2016 election sort of was flowing from the same place that this anti-immigrant animosity is coming from.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Erin, do you feel like this is something new or just the continuation of something old?
RYAN: Well, I think that this is something old put in a new place. The Internet allows people to be a jerk in front of more people than has ever been possible in human history. They always existed. We just know about it more now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it just the Internet, though, because we have seen so many instances now of it actually bleeding over into real life - people confronting and saying things that they might have not felt were socially acceptable before?
RYAN: I think the Internet prompts people to think that real life - that it's an OK way to behave in real life. You know, you pointed out the shooting as a result of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. Like, that would not have been shared, would not have been germinated if the internet hadn't germinated it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess the question is, what, if anything, should be done about it, Jay? I mean, you see in Europe, for example, there are limitations on free speech. Hate speech in certain countries is illegal. Should that be something that's imported here?
COST: Well, if we're talking about speech that is primarily political, I would be very skeptical of that. Our founding fathers might have had a certain kind of ideal of what the public discourse was going to be. But in practice, it's always been very rough and tumble. It's always been very hyperbolic, very much us versus them. If you look at, you know, the rhetoric of the resistance to Trump, conservatives are offended by that. But conservatives also drew upon the Tea Party. And this is just the way our political discourse goes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Erin, what's your view? What should be done, if anything?
RYAN: Well, there's been a lot of criticism about like collegiate safe-space culture and conservative speakers being protested or shouted down. And I think that speech should lead to more speech. I think hate speech is something that is designed to shut people up and prevent speech from occurring.
So I think that it's really important for college students and anybody, really, to force themselves to confront and interact with opposing views. I think that that makes you a more well-rounded person. And that makes the country stronger if people actually try to interact with each other honestly and from a place of, you know, attempted good faith. I think hate speech that incites violence should, probably, be something that is looked at a case - on a case-by-case basis.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How much influence do you think the president and his style of discourse has on the national discourse? Jay, your view?
COST: The strategies that he's pursuing now to get attention for himself are very similar to the strategies that he used to pursue that got him on the front page of the New York Post every week - every day of a week, I think, in the early '90s when he was divorcing his first wife. He's taken that media strategy to the Internet. It's gone nationwide now. And I think that it's had downstream effects on our culture and that I think are almost uniformly negative.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Erin, the contention is that President Trump believes all publicity is good publicity. What do you think the effect of that is?
RYAN: Well, I think that it's sort of a chicken-and-egg question because did the current environment birth Donald Trump or Donald Trump birth the current environment? And I think it's become a positive feedback loop.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Erin Gloria Ryan is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. Thank you so much.
RYAN: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Jay Cost is a contributor to The Weekly Standard. Thank you so much.
COST: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOPKO LASWELL PRIDGEN'S "DETROIT") [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this conversation, it's said that an armed man who entered a Washington, D.C., restaurant was "targeting liberals." In fact, he went there to "self-investigate" baseless Internet rumors.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.