Political speech can be dangerous, or rather tedious and boring, or quite offensive while at the same time not particularly important to anyone, but political speech is protected – the government is not allowed to shut any of it down. Twitter can do that. That’s their private platform, not the government’s. Facebook can do the same. Both are commercial enterprises. They want to keep their respective platforms wildly successful. Each can lock you out. Both locked out Donald Trump. He was just too much trouble.
But otherwise, in the real world, you can say any nasty political thing you want. No one can stop you, until that’s exactly what you do:
Brendan Hunt, a Trump supporter who called for killing members of Congress days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, was found guilty Wednesday of making a death threat against elected officials.
The jury, which took about three hours to reach its verdict, found that comments Hunt made in a disturbing video posted online two days after the U.S. Capitol riot amounted to a genuine threat to murder lawmakers in Washington. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
That was his thing, and maybe he was just trash-talking, or maybe he wasn’t play-acting at all. That was the question here:
Hundreds of people have been arrested following the Capitol attack. Although Hunt did not participate in the riot, his case is believed to be the first of those charged in connection with it to go to trial. His prosecution in Brooklyn federal court has been seen as a test of how far violent speech can go before it crosses a line into criminality and comes as such politically charged rhetoric on social media has come under increasing scrutiny.
He crossed the line:
Hunt, 37, was charged with one count of making a threat to assault and murder a U.S. official. He was arrested Jan. 19, a day before President Biden’s inauguration, after the FBI received a tip about his video, titled “KILL YOUR SENATORS: Slaughter them all.” The clip had been posted on BitChute, a hosting site popular with far-right conservatives, after the deadly riot in Washington.
The jury concluded that separate menacing social media posts Hunt made in 2020 – including one directed at Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), then the Senate minority leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) – did not rise to the level of criminality.
But there was that other social media post – KILL YOUR SENATORS: Slaughter them all!
That crossed that line, even with this defense:
Hunt’s lawyers had argued that the elected officials he targeted were not aware of his comments at the time, and he did not contact their offices or tag the lawmakers’ social media accounts in any of his controversial posts, according to testimony and evidence presented during the trial. While offensive, his lawyers said, Hunt’s comments, which he made from his home in Queens, were constitutionally protected and not legitimate threats.
Well, maybe not:
Prosecutors said during the trial that Hunt’s remarks were specific. He offered detailed descriptions of how he wanted to end the lives of the people he claimed were complicit in “stealing” the election from Trump. To support the case, the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn offered evidence that appeared to illustrate Hunt’s deeply rooted racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic beliefs.
In the Jan. 8 video message that led to his conviction, Hunt called on followers to return to Washington with weapons on Inauguration Day when members of Congress would be reconvened, to “put some bullets in their [expletive] heads.”
By then, he was angry with Republican lawmakers, too, for participating in the certification of Biden’s victory, and his threat appeared to address lawmakers in general.
And then he went public:
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Richardson argued in his summation Tuesday that Hunt was clearly serious when he addressed his followers online: “You know they were true threats because of the calm and confident manner in which he conveyed the ‘Kill Your Senators’ video.” Richardson said Hunt’s statements also rang true because of the “graphic and vivid imagery” he invoked “to place people in fear.”
Hunt took the witness stand in his defense Tuesday, telling the jury he was not to be taken seriously when he talked about gunning down elected officials. In his testimony, he said his comments were in line with “this sort of rhetoric going on at the time” on the Internet.
Hunt also said he was heavily using marijuana and alcohol while struggling with depression and boredom during the coronavirus pandemic. He told the jury that the video he posted online after the Capitol riot was filmed while he was under the influence.
The defense was simple. Everyone talks that way. And he was drunk. And this sort of speech is permitted anyway. So, back off! But there was this:
Prosecutors pressed Hunt about his apparent fixation with Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and evidence showing he used degrading language to describe immigrants.
In a text message exchange with his father, John Hunt, a former family court judge, the younger man suggested his family relocate to a “red state with a decent white population that upholds the Constitution.”
But then again, many on his side both think and talk that way. Listen to talk radio. Someone is going to die, soon! And they deserve to die! And of course many on the other side of things don’t talk that way at all. Joe Biden doesn’t talk that way. No one has to die.
He has another way of talking. Peter Baker, the New York Times’ chief White House correspondent, covers Biden’s words later that day:
President Biden laid out an ambitious agenda on Wednesday night to rewrite the American social compact by vastly expanding family leave, child care, health care, preschool and college education for millions of people to be financed with increased taxes on the wealthiest earners.
Invoking the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. Biden unveiled a $1.8 trillion social spending plan to accompany previous proposals to build roads and bridges, expand other social programs and combat climate change, representing a fundamental reorientation of the role of government not seen since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people,” Mr. Biden said in his first nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress.
And no one has to be assassinated! It’s time to think the other way:
Taken together, the collection of initiatives that Mr. Biden has introduced in his first 100 days in office suggest a breathtaking scope of change sought by a 78-year-old president who spent a lifetime as a more conventional lawmaker. After presenting himself during last year’s campaign as a “transition candidate” to follow the volatile tenure of Donald J. Trump, Mr. Biden has since his inauguration positioned himself as a transformational president.
Or he may be positioning himself as a delusional president:
The succession of costly proposals amounts to a risky gamble that a country deeply polarized along ideological and cultural lines is ready for a more activist government and the sort of redistribution of wealth long sought by progressives. Mr. Biden’s Democrats have only the barest of majorities in the House and Senate to push through the most sweeping of legislation and, successful or not, he may have framed the terms of the debate for the next election.
“Our best future will not come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, said in his party’s televised official response. “It will come from you – the American people.”
Scott gave the usual Republican line. The government solves nothing. People do. And by the way, America is not racist, not in any way at all. He should know. He’s black. Life is good. Socialism isn’t. And so he wouldn’t have understood this:
Not allowed to bring anyone to the first lady’s box, Jill Biden hosted five guests online beforehand, including a transgender teenager, a gun control activist and an immigrant brought to the country illegally as a child.
And her husband just kept being generously optimistic too:
Mr. Biden struck an optimistic note with the fading of the pandemic that has killed more than 573,000 people in this country, hailing the progress in vaccinating most American adults and the easing of public health restrictions that have so warped everyday life for more than a year.
“Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” the president said. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setbacks into strength. We all know life can knock us down. But in America, we never, ever, ever stay down.”
And we can fix things without rancor if we all just calm down:
The gathering came at a moment of racial turmoil after last week’s conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer in the murder of George Floyd and after a spate of subsequent shootings involving law enforcement agents around the country. And it came at a time of multiple mass shootings that have once again put gun laws into question.
Mr. Biden called for legislation to improve policing around the country and to restrict access to high-powered firearms. He expressed hope that negotiations to rein in police abuses may reach bipartisan agreement and called on lawmakers to come to a deal by next month, one year after Mr. Floyd’s death, but no consensus across the aisle appears likely for meaningful gun legislation.
“The vast majority of those wearing the badge serve our communities honorably,” Mr. Biden said, drawing bipartisan applause. But he added, “We have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system and enact police reform in George Floyd’s name.”
Republicans will say no to all of that, but it’s worth a try. Just be decent:
Mr. Biden also came to the defense of transgender people who have been targeted by some Republicans. “For all transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people who are so brave, I want you to know that your president has your back,” he said.
And he’ll also work on fixing what has been broken too:
The president, who has struggled to respond to a surge of migrants at the southwestern border since taking office, promoted his proposed overhaul of the immigration system, and talked about his goals to stem climate change by cutting carbon emissions in half over the next decade.
While Mr. Biden promoted his decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 after nearly 20 years of war there, he said little new about how he would address challenges from increasingly antagonistic adversaries like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea other than repeating his intent to take a tough line when necessary while seeking cooperation where possible.
None of that was new, but Baker notes this:
As striking as anything else in the speech was Mr. Biden’s vision of a profound pivot in America’s eternal debate about the role of government in society. Four decades after President Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem, not the solution, Mr. Biden aimed to turn that thesis on its head, seeking to empower the federal state as a catalyst to remake the country and revamp the balance between the richest and the rest.
That would remake the country:
The “American Families Plan,” as he called his latest, $1.8 trillion proposal, would follow the “American Rescue Plan,” a $1.9 trillion package of spending on pandemic relief and economic stimulus that he has already signed into law, and the “American Jobs Plan,” a $2.3 trillion program for infrastructure, home health care and other priorities that remains pending.
The families plan includes $1 trillion in new spending and $800 billion in tax credits. It would finance universal prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds, a federal paid family and medical leave program, efforts to make child care more affordable, free community college for all, aid for students at colleges that historically serve nonwhite communities and expanded subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
The plan would also extend key tax breaks included as temporary measures in the coronavirus relief package that benefit lower- and middle-income workers and families, including the child tax credit, the earned-income tax credit, and the child and dependent care tax credit.
To pay for that, the president proposed increasing the marginal income tax rate for the top 1 percent of American income earners, to 39.6 percent from 37 percent. He also would increase capital gains and dividend tax rates for those earning more than $1 million a year. And he would eliminate a provision in the tax code that reduces capital gains on some inherited assets, like vacation homes, that largely benefits the wealthy.
That struck a nerve:
Republicans on Wednesday did not wait for the speech to be delivered to focus on the sticker shock of Mr. Biden’s various plans, eager to unify in their opposition to a Democratic president’s liberal blueprint rather than continue to engage in their own fractious civil war over the role of Mr. Trump in their party.
“Behind President Biden’s familiar face, it’s like the most radical Washington Democrats have been handed the keys, and they’re trying to speed as far left as they can possibly go before American voters ask for their car back,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said beforehand.
Mr. Romney, one of the more moderate Republicans that Mr. Biden needs if he has any hope of forging bipartisan support, used another metaphor. “Maybe if he were younger, I’d say his dad needs to take away the credit card,” Mr. Romney told reporters.
Nor did Republicans give the president credit for progress in curbing the pandemic, pointing out that the vaccines were developed under Mr. Trump and that the economy was already on the rebound by the time Mr. Biden took office. “This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” Mr. Scott said. “The coronavirus is on the run.”
There was no rebound at the time, and the coronavirus was out of control at the time, but there’s no point in arguing about any of that. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it, and they now deny there was even any littering, much less a riot, on that odd day long ago:
In making his pitch for a more expansive government, Mr. Biden tied his plans to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, suggesting that the American system itself was being tested.
“Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us, created equal in the image of God, have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility?” he asked. “Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?”
The world’s autocrats, he said, were betting that it could not. “They look at the images of the mob that assaulted the Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy,” Mr. Biden said. “But they’re wrong. You know it. I know it. But we have to prove them wrong.”
Republicans shrugged, but Sahil Kapur, a national political reporter for NBC News, notes that Biden was out to grab the other Republicans:
A theme of Biden’s first 100 days has been to make appeals to Republican voters, even if he can’t win over their representatives in Congress. He kept that up in the speech by describing his plans as designed for Americans who feel “forgotten,” a term that former President Donald Trump often used to describe his voters.
“I know some of you at home are wondering whether these jobs are for you. So many of you, so many of the folks I grew up with feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing. It’s frightening,” Biden said, calling his plan “a blue-collar blueprint to build America.” He said 90 percent of the new jobs won’t require a college degree and 75 percent won’t require an associate’s degree.
And Biden used some populist rhetoric targeted as much at Trump voters in conservative strongholds as liberals in cities like New York or Portland: “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class.”
He’s poaching their voters and he’s daring the Washington Republicans to go ahead and look useless:
The president continued to walk a fine line between encouraging bipartisan discussions on alternatives or changes to his American Jobs Plan, and making clear he believes an aggressive approach is necessary.
“I applaud a group of Republican senators who just put forward their own proposal. So, let’s get to work,” Biden said, referring to a $568 billion proposal that some have released. “I’d like to meet those who have ideas that are different.”
That put them on the spot. You got ideas? Put up or shut up, and Aaron Blake saw this:
Listening to parts of Biden’s speech, you wouldn’t necessarily know Congress is stuck in gridlock. While no Republicans supported Biden’s coronavirus stimulus and the party is balking at the size of his infrastructure package – among many proposals – Biden spoke almost as if Congress had put up a united front.
Biden said that with “the overwhelming support of the American people – Democrats, independents and Republicans – we did act together. We passed the American Rescue Plan, one of the most consequential rescue packages in American history.”
He added of the coronavirus vaccine response: “Senior deaths from covid-19 are down 80 percent since January – down 80 percent, because of all of you.”
And: “We will have provided over 220 million covid shots in those [first] 100 days – thanks to all the help of all of you. We’re marshaling – with your help, everyone’s help – we’re marshaling every federal resource.”
Blake is impressed:
It was an interesting rhetorical tactic. Beyond an appeal to Republicans to support various gun restrictions, Biden didn’t dwell much on his opposition. And even when making that appeal, Biden seemed to almost apologize for his tone, ad-libbing from his prepared remarks: “Look, I don’t want to become confrontational.”
Aspects of the coronavirus response have sometimes been more bipartisan, but that hasn’t been the case during Biden’s presidency. Biden almost seemed to be pretending it were, perhaps reaching out to Republicans by suggesting he would be more than happy to give them credit if they just played a little ball.
Yes, Biden is sly:
Again on Wednesday, there were traces of Biden trying to build upon or recast Trumpism for his benefit. That was particularly the case on China, which he brought up repeatedly.
At one point, he said there was “simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”
Biden at two different points recounted conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, pitching China as a formidable foe that must be dealt with (albeit in ways different from Trump’s approach).
“He’s deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world,” Biden said of Xi. “He and other autocrats think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies – it takes too long to get consensus. To win that competition for the future, in my view, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children.”
Biden added at another point: “Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America’s adversaries – the autocrats of the world – are betting we can’t.”
To oversimplify things a bit: You really want to get tough on and keep the upper hand on China? Forget trade wars; pass my bill.
He had trapped the Republicans on that, but Jennifer Rubin notes his most devastating comment:
At the close, Biden confronted threats to democracy. He argued that government can be a force for good and that democracy, not authoritarianism, works. He practically pleaded with Americans: “It’s time to remember that we the people are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over. It’s us. … In another era when our democracy was tested, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us – in America: We do our part. We all do our part. That’s all I’m asking. That we do our part, all of us.”
And that’s what’s new here. Don’t hate the government. Don’t go kill senators. The government is you. Make it better.
Yes, things have changed.