On the cusp of a presidential election year, including a Republican primary in Georgia in March, the use of toxic political rhetoric to gin up fear and anger — and get people to the polls — is soaring.

How dangerous is the mood?

After 6th District U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick was forced to close his local congressional office in Cumming due to what he called “serious threats of violence against his staff,” Coastal Georgia Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he believed the dangers facing elected officials have escalated. Like McCormick, he also has received death threats, he said.

Carter gave no details about the threats, including when and how they were made. But after declaring it time for Americans to “take a step back” and ask, “Is this really the way we want America to go?” the five-term congressman, a former pharmacist, traced the death threats to those with mental illnesses who, for one reason or another, aren’t taking medication.

“It only takes one person to lose it,” Carter said. “So, I’m gonna tell you there are some people out there who are on the edge, and we need to be aware of that.”

Other factors?

In his interview with the AJC, Carter wasn’t asked whether other factors might also be poisoning political discourse to the extent that death threats against sitting elected officials become normal.

Those possibilities might include the erosion of civility and decorum on Capitol Hill, most recently illustrated by an alleged elbow jab by former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to a despised colleague and an Oklahoma senator challenging the testifying Teamsters’ president to a fight during a committee hearing (“Stand your butt up”).

Carter might also have considered the example-setting role played by incendiary and apocalyptic rhetoric often employed by former President Donald Trump.

Three days earlier, in a Veterans Day speech in New Hampshire, the odds-on-favorite to be the Republican Party nominee in next year’s presidential election (“the final battle”) had described his opponents and critics as “vermin” bent on stealing elections and destroying America and the American dream, both through legal and illegal means.

Carter wasn’t asked in the AJC interview if he condemned that rhetoric. Asked, however, if he would be endorsing the former president for reelection, he said he would be deciding that “in the near future.”

Local politics not immune

Local politics aren’t immune to the toxic and potentially dangerous rhetoric that seems fast becoming normalized in American politics.

Days before Savannah’s recent municipal elections, leaflets were circulated in some neighborhoods describing one candidate, without evidence, as a child sex abuser — an allegation that was as physically dangerous to that candidate as it was wrong.

Not all of the campaign mudslinging was deliberately scurrilous or potentially perilous to those targeted. Yet even when it was neither of those things, it could be soul-crushing.

In her closing statement at a candidate forum last month, Alicia Miller Blakely urged voters to return her at-large, post 2 on the Savannah City Council so she could continue her fight against corruption in City Hall.

In her first term, that challenge was more daunting than she expected, she explained:

“You all sent us downtown under that Gold Dome with a butter knife, and they all had AR-15s and M-16s.”

For a city grappling with gun violence, it’s difficult to think of a metaphor more ill-considered and tone-deaf.

The Tide brings news and observations from The Current’s staff.

Type of Story: News

Based on facts, either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...