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How Old Is Too Old in Politics?

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This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked: “How should voters assess the physical and mental fitness of politicians, and how should the press cover such matters?”

Bekke points out that voters have a tough job:

How to decide who is mentally fit to serve is a true conundrum. Like beauty, it is mostly in the eye of the beholder. Media can be a big influence and paid ads can sway voters. Given the First Amendment, it’s difficult to throttle “free speech” regardless of its veracity. In the end, it comes down to the voters doing their due diligence and really paying attention to the candidate’s policies, rather than listening to media hype and attack ads.

Glenn believes that the matter calls for impolite journalism, a necessity that is heightened by a generational characteristic of Baby Boomers:

If the World War II generation was the “Greatest Generation,” then the Baby Boomer generation is the “longest generation.” They refuse to retire; can’t imagine retiring; won’t retire!

The Greatest Generation made its name and reputation on the battlefields of Europe, all the time looking to return home to a normal life with their family, whether it existed yet or not. Once home in the postwar era, they set about building a career, a life, a family, and a nation, but always looked to retirement when they could enjoy the fruits of their labor in a much more private manner. The Baby Boomers are nothing like that. They have never contemplated any life beyond a professional one. And so their plan seems to be to hang on to whatever power, prestige, or routine their work affords them for as long as possible.

We all value this stubborn “not gonna quit” mentality, and of course many of us can be highly functional assets to our chosen profession very late in life. But it is equally apparent that many of us can and do lose some of our acuity and utility as we grow older. This physical reality, coupled with the psychological makeup of our current eldest generation, has forced the burden of determining “when it’s time to go,” from the individual to the rest of society. None of us are comfortable making these decisions within our own families, much less for someone else’s family. These decisions are being made privately in company boardrooms and family living rooms all over America today. But in the political arena, such decisions are necessarily made in a very public setting.

Voting is a big responsibility. Every citizen is asked to make very difficult and messy boardroom and living-room decisions for our nation in a very public way. If we are to make the best decisions possible, we need accuracy and fairness more than politeness from our media. One’s physical and mental acuity is a valid voting factor. Is that ageism? Maybe. Is it appropriate for the people that have to choose the leaders of the free world?

Absolutely.

If the days of the party nominations coming out of a smoke-filled back room are over—and they are—then we will have to make some very public, very uncomfortable decisions, and we will need some very public, very uncomfortable reporting to fulfill our civic duty.

Rachel feels herself to be at the mercy of media that are failing to perform their duties:

Can the population assess a candidate’s fitness to serve without honest reporting? We, the plebeian class, find ourselves caught between two forces of chaos while our journalistic class finds ever more justifications to align with one of them. Honest assessments are met with cries of some evil “-ism”, as if basic journalistic integrity is fodder for oppressors.

Our journalistic class has spent a year telling me Democracy is in peril—that if I do not come to the same conclusion as them, I am killing our republic. But I believe that the failure of our journalists to report honestly, to strive to separate their personal perspectives from their public service, is killing our democracy. A polity unable to honestly assess a candidate’s fitness because journalists fear having a scarlet A for ableism sewn to their profiles is a population incapable of carrying the weight of our democracy.

Whereas Harold would prefer a less individualistic approach to evaluating candidates:

There is a myth in America: Change, innovation, and genius flow from a single person, preferably a model of perfection. Those around them who made all of it possible share little in the success. It is a story that shapes who we perceive as being worthy to represent us. Should anyone exhibit any characteristic that is viewed as a deviation from perfection, then they are no longer qualified for the position. I find it all very disheartening.

And Timothy believes the press should avoid even raising the question of age in order to avoid ageism:

There are 90-year-olds getting college degrees and opening businesses and there are 60-year-olds rotting away in a recliner watching I Love Lucy reruns for the 96th time. Young politicians should not have their age used as a weapon to create doubt about their competency any more than an old politician should have their age used as a weapon to create doubt about their competency. Even mere mentions of a candidate’s age, presented as nothing more than fact, can impose bias in the public and should be avoided.

Other than the candidate meeting the legal minimum required age to serve in the office, there should be no mention of a candidate’s age by the press nor the opponent unless the candidate themselves makes it an issue. Just as a criminal defendant’s medical conditions can’t be pursued in court unless the defendant brings it up, age needs to be protected to start removing ageism from our conversations.

Meredith attempts to draw distinctions:

As a mother of a neurodivergent son and a volunteer who helps adults with disabilities, ableism is not a subject I take lightly. We live in a country that continues to overlook the dignity, rights, and needs of citizens with disabilities and that undervalues the lives of our seniors. To assess a particular politician, ask one simple question: Can the impairments in question be mitigated with reasonable accommodations? If so, withholding those accommodations would be wrong. However, if there is no form of support that could assist a person in performing the duties to which they were elected, questioning their suitability is appropriate. A free and fair society must have a media where their fitness to serve can be challenged, but there is a way to do so that targets the issue and not the person.

If we keep throwing ableism and ageism around to shut down criticism, we become complicit in covering up the systemic ableism that permeates our world and presents the REAL problem for those living with disabilities or returning to the workforce at an advanced age. I DO see the impact of ableism in our society, in our cities, in how we educate, work, and recreate … I don’t see it in asking our elected officials to put the needs of their constituents above their own need to be the person holding the office when age or illness impairs their ability to serve. I share the desire that our politicians be cognitively capable.

Theodore wants voters to get help from experts so that they can make more objective decisions:

Where issues of mental competence or mental health arise, I would suggest a politically neutral panel of eminent doctors specializing in neurological and psychiatric disorders, perhaps convened by the National Academy of Sciences or some similarly distinguished, apolitical, medical or scientific body, either at the initiative of the convening body or upon the request of the candidate whose fitness has been challenged. The candidate or candidates would be asked to submit to examination by the panel. The panel would be tasked with examining the candidate and issuing a public report on the candidate’s fitness for the public office he or she seeks and, if appropriate, the candidate’s prognosis over his or her prospective term. The report should be couched in nontechnical, easily understandable language capable of being understood by the general public.

Bruce agrees:

I don’t believe voters can or should have to decide on the physical and mental health of candidates for public office when plenty of experienced experts are available. As a starter, I suggest a board of five nonpartisan physicians, including a neurologist and a psychiatrist, who are permitted to fully examine candidates for the presidency and vice presidency and report their findings publicly and transparently in a manner to be determined.

But Robert warns against misleading ourselves into overestimating the objectivity of our impressions and judgments:

This obsession with the mental and physical health of politicians is part of a larger problem: misuse of medical terminology to give a patina of scientific objectivity to subjective judgments. We label someone a “narcissist” when we mean to say he’s a bit full of himself. We call someone a “sociopath” when we mean to say she’s insensitive to our feelings. We rarely, if ever, diagnose people on our side. It is always a way of saying someone on the other side is unfit. But a mental or physical illness does not define a person. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy all suffered from serious illness while in office. All three are considered among the top presidents.

I think we should mostly leave mental- and physical-health concerns out of our political judgments. We’d be more honest if we called our politicians too old, cold, or stupid instead of making armchair diagnoses of dementia, psychopathy, or intellectual disability.

Gary stopped working to spare his patients the possibility of age-diminished performance, and criticizes politicians who stick around too long, arguing that in doing so they risk great harm to millions of people.

He writes:

I am a retired surgeon.

My mother is alive at 101; my father lived to be 97. Both appear (past tense for father) alert and cogent to a casual observer. That is far, far from true. I am well: no medications, quite active, etc. My experience with peers and patients (my practice was joint replacement; Medicare age heavily represented) and general observations prompted me to retire from surgery at age 70 and completely at 71.

I greatly enjoyed my medical/surgical practice and was in no way “burned out.” With a largely Medicare population, I am far from wealthy. In order to cheer myself—or, at least, to reassure myself of this decision—I did a little research. You can see how my voting will go from what I wrote:

Old age brings physical infirmity and illness. Mental decline—especially in tasks requiring rapid analysis and fluidity of thought—is also inevitable. Although length of life has increased, there has not been an accompanying improvement in physical and mental well-being. Between 5 and 14 percent of people aged over 70 suffer some form of dementia, and this incidence nearly doubles every five years. Roughly 20 percent of those aged over 80 are mentally impaired, and by 90 years, up to 40 percent have dementia.

Loss of insight and judgment are nearly universal with dementia. These changes may be subtle; worse, a person with diminished mental acuity will never recognize their dementia. For the elderly, rapid yet complete and accurate decision making as is required in some occupations may be difficult, even impossible. Conflict then occurs between personal interests versus public safety; these are ideally resolved in favor of public safety.

Certain positions come with a mandatory retirement age: air-traffic controller, 56 years; federal law-enforcement officer, 57 years; airline pilot, 65 years; diplomat (but not ambassador!), 65 years. At least eight states require mandatory retirement for certain types of judges. Several health systems have introduced mandatory retirement or competence testing by age 75. Doctors can injure people, of course, but only one at a time, and an airline pilot might be responsible for several hundred deaths. In either event, the effect of an error is immediate and obvious. With consequences delayed and unclear, a president, legislator, or judge might repeatedly ruin the lives of tens of millions with misguided decisions and undo a lifetime of their own accumulated esteem.

Woodrow Wilson represented the U.S. at the Paris Peace Talks following World War I. During these talks, Wilson became ill. One school of thought on how harshly the Treaty of Versailles treated Germany is that Wilson failed to counter the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, who prevailed: Germany was destroyed, disorganized, and demoralized. The result in Germany included paranoia, rabidly defensive nationalism, intense racism, and division. The consequence was Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust.

FDR was impaired when elected to his fourth term in 1944. The Yalta Conference in early 1945 determined the fate of Germany after World War II. According to some, its terms inadvertently set the way for Stalin and the Soviets to dominate Eastern Europe and precipitated the Cold War. It is believed that Roosevelt’s weakened state was partly responsible. FDR died two months later.

Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma will be 93 when his term is completed. Chuck Grassley is running for another Senate term; Senator Dianne Feinstein is leaning toward another term in 2024. If reelected, both will be 94 at the end of their term. In Congress, there are currently more than 10 members over the age of 80. The current Supreme Court’s conservative composition is in part attributable to the liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG is respected as a Supreme Court justice and brilliant legal strategist. Yet, in her 80s and having survived several episodes of cancer, she lacked the insight to retire.

Just as the requisite hyperconfidence of a successful person might become dangerous hubris with years of power and influence, a decline from highly functional, wise, and insightful to mildly eccentric to overtly demented can subtly occur. Those in positions of power carry a burden to provide for clients, patients, constituents, customers. As they age, they deserve respect and, if desired and appropriate, a position where they will contribute. They also carry an obligation to potential successors, and their best action might be stepping aside, deferring to a younger, more astute and mentally agile individual who would benefit from mentorship or guidance. Consider Sir Isaac Newton’s observation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Read: 10 reader views on the varieties of anti-racism

Stephan offers a similar conclusion from the perspective of a different profession:

I’m [Federal Aviation Administration–licensed] as a commercial pilot, and I’m now 86. I no longer fly, either recreationally (which is my choice) or for work (which is the government’s choice). The FAA mandates a fixed retirement age for working pilots, which is basically age 65, though there are minor exceptions. I have also stopped driving unless it’s absolutely necessary. My 16-years-younger wife takes the wheel of our Porsche. That is my choice as well, even though I am still quite capable of driving, after a career as an automotive journalist, including the editorship of Car and Driver, that put me behind the wheel of plenty of high-performance cars, including my own modified Porsche track car.

If we don’t want 86-year-old pilots flying our airliners, why should we accept 86-year-old politicians flying our country? There should be a government-mandated retirement age, and I’d be happy with it at age 75. How many of these people whining about ableism/ageism are also complaining that they should be allowed to fly in airplanes piloted by people Dianne Feinstein’s age?

I’m guessing none.

Margie and Don object to ageism:

As two retired business consultants who are now 83 and still going strong, we object to Americans’ reacting to anyone over 70 as somehow less able. We are very active in our retirement home, and volunteer for many other charitable endeavors here in Boulder. I do four exercise classes each week, have written letters to the local newspapers and hundreds of postcards to get out the vote, monitor the book club, attend painting sessions weekly, and host a potluck monthly for 30 to 35 residents. We also volunteer at our local library for various ESL programs. In addition, we stay in touch with our five children and 11 grandchildren, including sending boxes of homemade cookies to encourage our college students at midterms and to celebrate their birthdays. We stay informed by watching morning and nightly news, as well as the Sunday political programs and Fareed Zakaria’s take.  We are not just “napping our lives away,” that’s for sure.

My husband, a former college professor with a Ph.D., has climbed all the 14ers in the lower 48, still plays senior softball, manages the 70s team, and runs the Boulder Blues Softball Club. He works out in a gym, hikes or rides his bike at least three to four days per week. His interest in and concern for climate change has prompted him to take the lead in our efforts to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and we now compost and recycle more than 70 percent of our refuse in our building. Fortunately for us, he also volunteers to help with everything else in our senior community, including running the Great Decisions discussion group sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association each winter. Our management here has benefited from his advice and counsel on everything from staffing to the installation of electric chargers in our communal garage, used for charging our EV and two others.

We take umbrage at the idea that anyone beyond a certain age can no longer contribute to the greater good. If the American public chooses to lump all of us in one category just because of our ages, they’re sadly mistaken. We think Joe Biden is doing an excellent job and, if allowed to continue, will do so in another term beginning in 2024.

Dennis reflects that age giveth and taketh qualities of a good leader:

I have a saying: “I know that tomorrow I will be wiser than I am today, because I know that today, I am wiser than I was yesterday.” At age 77, I feel very wise and able to act on that wisdom.

Nevertheless I must admit that my strength and stamina have declined. My ability to physically act is somewhat limited compared to decades ago. Wisdom and experience are excellent traits for leaders; however, each individual is different, and voters need to be able to fully evaluate all circumstances of a candidate’s fitness. Also, do circumstances require a leader who can carry the sword in a charge in battle or have the diplomatic skills to negotiate and maintain prosperity and peace?

Hopefully, I will be able to continue being wiser tomorrow than I am today. However, I realize that at some point I may not remember what wisdom I have gained today for tomorrow––and how, when, or if this decline should occur is unpredictable. Unfortunately, age does increase the probabilities of some decline, but not when and in whom.

I fully enjoy my retirement, although I know others my age and in my profession who continue to work. I believe that most people (who are free to choose) know when it is time to retire, and we should give a candidate some credit for knowing if they are fit for the job. Still, it is the voter’s right to have as much information as possible to evaluate a candidate, and the candidate’s obligation to provide that information, and the journalist’s obligation to report on it as well.

And Errol opines:

There is something to be said for your leader having poise and exuding strength. People can call that “ableism,” and maybe it is, but we live in the real world where superficialities have value. People are going to have to learn to live with that as long as humans exist.

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Is Ivanka Trump plotting a return to politics

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If you’re a woman freaking out about the imminent possibility of another Trump term, don’t despair quite yet. Yes, Project 2025 is hoping to turn the US into a Christian nationalist country. Yes, JD Vance, Donald Trump’s running partner, has been primed for the job by Peter Thiel, a man who has mused that women having the vote is problematic. Yes, experts are raising the alarm that “a Trump-Vance administration will be the most dangerous administration for abortion and reproductive freedom in this country’s history.” But it’s not all doom and gloom: there may well be a beacon of light and female liberation coming into the White House as well. Signs suggest Ivanka Trump is considering a return to politics. Ladies and gentlewomen, the patron saint of female empowerment may selflessly serve us once again!

To be clear: the younger Trump hasn’t explicitly said that she’s interested in another go at being Daddy’s special adviser. In fact, she’s spent the last few years getting as far away from politics as possible. A renaissance woman, Trump has sold everything from handbags to shoes to real estate – but her most valuable product has always been herself. The former first daughter has always been very careful about protecting her personal brand. And, for a while, that meant staying well clear of her father.

With Donald Trump now formally the nominee, it can be hard to remember just how bad things looked for the former president a couple of years ago. After an underwhelming performance by GOP candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, a lot of Trump’s former acolytes started turning on him. High-profile Republicans complained that Trump was a drag on the party. Even the New York Post, once Trump’s personal Pravda, thought he was a joke: “TRUMPTY DUMPTY”, a post-midterm front page crowed. And then, of course, there were Trump’s mountains of legal problems. A lot of people wrote Trump off.

Ivanka was noticeably not by her father’s side during his hours of need. The moment that Donald got kicked out of the White House, Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, followed him to Florida but kept a safe distance from the political goings on at Mar-a-Lago. Can’t have an insurrection ruining one’s image, after all.

A company called College Hunks Hauling Junk helped them clear out their DC mansion and the pair decamped to Miami’s “Billionaire Bunker”. They didn’t go empty-handed, of course. The couple reported between $172m and $640m in outside income while working in the White House and Saudi Arabia gave Kushner’s private equity firm $2bn to invest. Enough to keep them busy for a while.

For a long time, Javanka stayed fairly under the radar. Ivanka Trump would pop up in headlines now and again in Fun-loving Mother and Caring Philanthropist mode. Behold, a flattering headline about Ivanka helping deploy medical supplies and meals to Ukraine! Look: here’s an Instagram slideshow of the whole family skiing! Now here’s a fun picture of the Javanka family at the flashy Ambani wedding!

A cynic might say these carefully curated images were designed to humanize Trump and erase her messy political past. Aiding this was a consistent drip-drip of mysterious sources telling the press that Javanka had no desire whatsoever to return to politics. Even this year, when Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee, media “sources” kept insisting that the former first daughter wanted nothing to do with the White House. “She is very happy, living her best life,” a source told People in March. “She left politics totally in the rearview mirror and so this time around, even if her dad is the leading Republican candidate, she basically doesn’t care. She told him when he said he was going to run again that she didn’t want to be involved.”

Mary Trump, the woman who has made a career out of being Donald Trump’s disgruntled niece after a legal battle over her inheritance, has been blunt about why Ivanka seems to have retreated from politics. “I think Ivanka made very clear that she doesn’t get enough out of [her relationship with her father] any more,” Mary Trump told CNN at the end of May. “She’s barely been heard from for months; she could not be bothered to show up at [her father’s] trial [over falsifying business records].”

As the election inches closer, however, Ivanka seems to have reassessed the value of her relationship with her father. In early May, the media outlet Puck reported that she was “warming to the idea of trying to be helpful again … She’s not like ‘Hell no’ any more”. A similar report from Business Insider soon followed: according to a “friend of Ivanka”, the entrepreneur wasn’t ruling politics out. A spokesperson for the couple told Puck that this was all nonsense but rumours of a political comeback kept mounting.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Ivanka jumped back into the spotlight with an appearance on Lex Fridman’s highly influential podcast. (Fridman has more than 4 million subscribers on YouTube.) In this she opened up about how working at the White House was “the most extraordinary growth experience of my life” and how privileged she was to have been asked by her father to help so many people. During the conversation, she also carefully recapped some of (what’s she’s claimed as) her key achievements in the White House, such as boosting the child tax credit. It wasn’t so much an interview as it was a hype project by a friend. It felt lot like it was teasing Trump’s return to political life should her dad be re-elected.

So, after years in the Floridian wilderness, has the Maga Princess officially returned to the family fold? It’s a tad too early to tell but it increasingly looks that way. As one would expect, Trump has spent the last few days close to her father after the attempt on his life: she’s very much thrown herself into the role of doting daughter again.

And while Ivanka has been absent from the Republican national convention so far, she and Jared are expected to be at Donald’s side on Thursday when he formally accepts the party’s nomination. And if that happens and images of Ivanka standing next to her father hit the headlines, it won’t just be a celebratory photoshoot – it’ll be a preview of Trump’s second term.

 

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Are assassination attempts getting more common?

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“There’s no place in America for this kind of violence,” President Joe Biden said on Saturday, following the shooting at a Donald Trump rally in Pennsylvania that left the former president hurt and killed an audience member.

But the fact is, this type of violence has a long history in American politics: Four US presidents have been killed in office and virtually all of them, in the modern era, have been targeted by assassination plots of varying levels of seriousness.

Along with the general atmosphere of political turmoil of recent years — Trump himself, Covid, police violence and the resulting protests, January 6 — attacks targeting public officials of both parties in the US also seem to be becoming more common.

Recent examples include the 2017 shooting by a left-wing extremist at a Republican Congressional baseball practice that critically injured Rep. Steve Scalise; the Donald Trump supporter who sent mail bombs to more than a dozen prominent Democrats in 2018; a right-wing militia’s plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020; the abortion rights supporter who attempted to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at this home in 2022; and the QAnon adherent who attacked Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while attempting to target her, in 2022.

That violence is having a clear impact on how American politics is conducted. Spending on security by House and Senate campaigns increased by 500 percent between 2020 and 2022, according to the Washington Post.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon: There’s been a global wave of recent assassinations as well. The UK has seen two members of parliament killed in recent years: Jo Cox, a Labour MP murdered by a right-wing extremist days before the Brexit vote in 2016, and David Amess, a Conservative MP fatally stabbed by an Islamic State supporter in 2021. Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro survived a stabbing during his campaign for president in 2018. In 2021, Haitian Prime Minister Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by mercenaries.

Last year saw the killing of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In January of this year, South Korean opposition leader Lee Jae-myung survived being stabbed in the neck, while Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and nearly killed in May. In Mexico, where political violence is rampant on a scale far beyond most other countries, at least 36 candidates seeking offices throughout the country were killed ahead of the country’s recent elections, according to the New York Times.

Then there are the numerous alleged plots targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The growing threat of assassination

Despite all that, it’s difficult to say for sure if political killings are on the rise. There’s a data problem: Assassinations are still relatively rare compared to other forms of political violence — violent protests, terrorist bombings — and attempts that succeed in killing their target, or even come close enough to succeeding, are even rarer.

But there is some data to suggest they’re getting more common. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, which includes incidents of political violence from 1970 to 2020, the number of assassination incidents around the world fell dramatically from more than a thousand per year in the early 1990s to less than 100 per year in 1999, then started to creep up again, jumping to more than 900 in 2015. This trend has roughly corresponded with a global uptick in international armed conflict, which also dipped through the 1990s before rising more recently.

Threatened acts of violence have increased even faster. In the United States, the Capitol Police reported 9,625 threats against members of Congress in 2021, compared to just 3,939 in 2017.

What could be driving this trend? Political violence researcher Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that political violence, including assassinations, becomes more common in countries where there are highly competitive elections that could shift the balance of power, where partisan politics becomes a dominant social identity, and where there are weak institutional constraints on violence. All of those reasons fit the US now, which is why Kleinfeld suggests the country is particularly vulnerable to a surge in political violence.

Kleinfeld also notes that a difference between today’s political violence and previous periods where it was common — such as the 1970s, the high point of terrorist violence within the US with more than 1,470 attacks compared to 214 in the decade following 9/11 — is that today’s perpetrators are more likely to not belong to any formal organization, but rather to self-radicalize via online engagement.

The Georgetown University terrorism researchers Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware argued in an article published two years ago that political assassination is becoming more common around the world in part to the emergence of so-called “accelerationism” — the deliberate effort to foment political chaos or societal collapse in order to accelerate political transformation — as a more prominent strategy for extremists. They write, “For extremists seeking to sow chaos and speed up some cataclysmic societal collapse, high-profile politicians provide an attractive target” because they personify the political order these extremists are trying to tear down.

Previous waves of political violence happened in eras when security was more lax and politicians more accessible. Think of John F. Kennedy’s open motorcade in Dallas, which no president would think of doing today. But Hoffman and Ware also note that even as politicians and governments invest more in security, new technologies are making assassination attempts easier. Consider the homemade gun used to kill Abe, which the assassin put together with parts and instructions he found online, or the attempted assassination of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro using explosive drones in 2018.

In an email to Vox, Hoffman said that the attempt on Trump “does fit into the trend … where attacks on elected officials are becoming more commonplace and, dare one say, even accepted as a norm in our politically polarized/divided country.”

What comes next

Political violence is a phenomenon that tends to feed on itself. Attacks create justifications for more attacks, leading to long periods of violence, such as Italy’s infamous “years of lead,” from the late ’60s through the ’80s, when assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings by right-wing and left-wing extremist groups were disturbingly common.

Another very inconvenient fact about political assassinations is that when successful, they often accomplish their political goals, if not always in ways the assassin might intend: The murder of Abraham Lincoln and his replacement by pro-states rights Southerner Andrew Johnson utterly changed the course of post-Civil War Reconstruction. The right-wing Israeli who killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, in the wake of the historic Oslo Accords, dealt a serious, perhaps fatal, blow to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The killing of Abe led to a dramatic political reckoning in Japan with the assassin’s primary target: the controversial Unification Church.

We still don’t know the specific motivations of the shooter who attempted to kill Trump, or what impact the event will have on the upcoming election or American politics generally. But it’s safe to say the impact, whatever the gunman’s intentions, would have been far greater if he had adjusted his aim by just a few inches.

When the stakes of political contests start to seem existential, and political violence of all kinds more permissible, an increase in assassination attempts — in the US and abroad — seems almost inevitable.

 

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July 14, 2024, coverage of the Trump assassination attempt

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Pesident Joe Biden gave an Oval Office address Sunday — a rare form of presidential remarks reserved for the most solemn times — and urged Americans to unite and take the temperature down on politics following an assassination attempt on former President Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.

Here’s what else to know:

Biden’s speech: The president condemned political violence and said “disagreement is inevitable and American democracy is part of human nature, but politics must never be a literal battlefield or, God forbid, a killing field.” He warned against the normalization of this violence and urged Americans to step out of their political silos “where we only listen to those with whom we agree, and where disinformation is rampant, where foreign actors fan the flames of our division to shape the outcomes consistent with their interests, not ours.”

Trump’s movements: The former president said on Truth Social that he is going to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Sunday for the Republican National Convention after initially considering delaying his trip. After the assassination attempt at the rally in Butler, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, Trump flew to Newark, New Jersey, and spent time with his daughter Ivanka at his golf club in Bedminster, sources told CNN. The Secret Service said Sunday that there are no plans to tighten security plans for the RNC, saying it is confident in the plans that are in place.

What happened at the rally on Saturday: Trump’s rally speech in Butler, Pennsylvania, Saturday evening began just as it had at dozens of rallies previously – his attendees chanted “USA! USA!” and the former president clapped and pointed to faces in the crowd before taking the lectern. About 150 yards to the north, a gunman was climbing onto the roof of a building outside the rally security perimeter. He had an AR-style weapon with him. Six minutes into the former president’s speech, the gunman took aim at Trump and squeezed the trigger. Here’s a timeline.

Gunman was spotted: A local police officer saw the gunman on a rooftop during campaign rally but was unable to engage him, Butler County Sheriff Michael Slupe told CNN on Sunday. Slupe said that Butler Township officers received calls about a suspicious person outside the perimeter of the rally and went looking to find that person. He said the initial calls that came in did not indicate the suspicious person had a gun.

New investigation details: The shooter, 20-year-old Thomas Matthew Crooks, had no prior contacts with the FBI and had not been previously on its radar or databases. Investigators are struggling to understand his motives. Crooks used an AR-style 556 rifle purchased legally by his father, FBI officials said, and one of the things that investigators are still looking to understand is how Crooks gained access to his father’s firearm. He also had “rudimentary” explosive devices in his car, an official said.

About the shooter: A former classmate and co-worker told CNN they remember Crooks as “the sweetest guy.” The colleague said Crooks was “not a radical” and never expressed any political views at work. “It’s hard seeing everything that’s going on online because he was a really, really good person that did a really bad thing. And I just wish I knew why,” the colleague said.

Congress: House Speaker Mike Johnson on Sunday called for the country “to get back to civility” and said he hasn’t gotten a “satisfactory answer” yet from US Secret Service on the “security lapse” at Trump’s Pennsylvania rally.

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