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When It Comes to the Rhetoric of Rage, the Right Has the Edge

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It was inevitable. A horrific shooting in Arizona has prompted a vitriolic debate about vitriolic political discourse. Nanoseconds after Jared Lee Loughner attempted to kill Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), murdering six other people and wounding over a dozen, including the congresswoman, commentators on the left accused the right of creating a rage-filled political atmosphere that could lead to violence. Noting that Sarah Palin's political action committee had named Giffords a "target" and literally placed her in cross-hairs, blogger Andrew Sullivan maintained that "her recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged." Partisans on the right immediately charged that the left was using this tragedy to force conservatives to shut up. Rush Limbaugh huffed (in paranoid fashion), "Do not kid yourself. What this is all about is shutting down conservative media. That's what this is all about. Shutting down any and all political opposition." Neocon godfather Bill Kristol accused the critics of the right (particularly those assailing Palin) of "McCarthyism," asserting that "the attempt to exploit this tragedy is distasteful."

Over at Mother Jones, several reporters and I spent the 36 hours after the shooting not playing the blame game, but reporting on the massacre, and we obtained an exclusive interview with Bryce Tierney, a longtime close friend of Loughner. Tierney described to us Loughner's years-long grudge against Giffords and his descent into detachment. Over the course of years, the alleged gunman had become obsessed with dreams, believing they were an alternative reality he could inhabit and control. Tierney noted that Loughner hated government, but that he had not, in Tierney's presence, voiced any particular partisan or ideological views. Tierney wasn't sure what had brought Loughner to this point, but he said he believes it was a nihilistic desire for chaos:
"More chaos, maybe," [Tierney] says. "I think the reason he did it was mainly to just promote chaos. He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what's happening. He wants all of that." Tierney thinks that Loughner's mindset was like the Joker's in the most recent Batman movie: "He f---- things up to f--- s--- up, there's no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn."
There's certainly a chance that evidence will emerge linking Loughner to extremists of some ideological stripe. But judging from Tierney's description -- and from a conversation I had with another Loughner associate -- I'd say this nightmare was more a matter of pathology than politics. So the Tucson massacre might not lend itself to a left-right debate. That said, the brawl that has ensued has been unavoidable and fascinating. One notable element is the claim repeatedly cited that there's extremism on both sides, as if neither the left nor the right bears any greater culpability.

This is a false equivalence. I'll explain why. But first here's an example of this cheap calculation. On "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Rep. Raul Labrador, a tea party GOPer from Idaho, was asked if the tea party's rhetoric contributed to "the security threats that members of Congress can experience?" He replied,
We have to be careful not to blame one side or the other because both sides are guilty of this. You have extremes on both sides. You have crazy people on both sides. . . . The American people need to understand that during the Bush administration, we had a bunch of people on the left who were using the same kind of vitriol that some people on the right are using now against Obama. So it's, it's not something that either party is guilty by themselves or either party is innocent of. And we have to make sure that we, we take care of it.
As someone who wrote a book that asserted (proved, I like to think) that George W. Bush was a serial liar, I'm quite familiar with the tough language deployed during the Bush years by his critics. Still, the angry rhetoric of the right has gone farther in recent years -- in that it has been adopted and embraced by leaders of the Republican Party. Here are some examples:

- In November 2009, House Republican leaders -- including now-Speaker John Boehner -- hosted and appeared at a Capitol Hill rally, where angry tea partiers were protesting against the health care reform bill. During that demonstration, the crowd, referring to the Democrats, shouted, "Nazis, Nazis." Neither Boehner nor any of the other House GOPers left the stage. They went along with the crowd, and did not denounce this hatred. Can anyone point to a similar event, when top elected Democratic leaders cheerfully appeared before -- and encouraged -- such a hate-driven crowd?

- Palin, as it's been widely noted, has routinely used gun-related rhetoric -- "Don't retreat, RELOAD" -- in speeches and on her Twitter feed. Has John Kerry or Al Gore, failed (sort of) national Democratic candidates, resorted to such violence-tainted language?

- While Sharron Angle was running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) last year, she raised the prospect of armed insurrection: "If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, 'My goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?' " Such talk did not stop the right and the GOP from rushing to help her crusade against Reid. Can you point to a mainstream Democratic Senate candidate who has openly referred to armed violence as an acceptable means to redress policy disputes?

- After Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a tea party candidate, was elected this past November, he hired a local talk show host named Joyce Kaufman to be his chief of staff. Months earlier, at a Fourth of July event, Kaufman had declared, "If ballots don't work, then bullets will." She went on: "I've never in my life thought that the day would come that I would tell individual citizens that you are responsible for being the militia that the Founding Fathers designed -- they were very specific. You need to be prepared to fight tyranny, whether it comes from outside or it comes from inside." Like Angle, Kaufman was suggesting that citizens might have to take up arms to deal with a government rendering decisions they opposed. After Kaufman drew media attention for this and other incendiary remarks, she resigned as West's chief of staff. But last week, West was still defending his decision to place her on his staff. Has any Democratic member of the House or Senate hired someone who has called for political change via bullets?

There is indeed over-the-top talk on the left. During the Bush years, far-left protesters at anti-war rallies referred to Bush and Dick Cheney as fascists. Conspiracy theorists on the left claimed the Bush-Cheney crew had started the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to enrich their pals in the oil and contracting industries. Some lefties (and righties) accused the president of having staged 9/11 -- or of allowing it to happen -- so he'd have a pretext for war. It was hateful stuff. But this rhetoric tended not to imply violence or insurrection. More to the point, such excessive rhetoric was not adopted and/or accepted by Democratic leaders.

In the past 2½ years, prominent Republicans have stoked the fires of extremism. During the 2008 campaign, Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists." A dozen House Republicans have backed the birthers who claim Obama was not born in the United States. In 2008, Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minn.), who now leads the tea party caucus in the House, called on the media to investigate "anti-American" House members. She also noted she was "very concerned that [Obama] may have anti-American views." Have Democratic officials called for such witch hunts of political foes? Have they embraced and advanced the nutty talk that can pop up on the far left? By the way, what do you do with anti-American terrorist-pals who have conned their way into the ultimate power?

The Republicans have institutionalized their side's craziness. Rep. Labrador, and others who equate left and right extremism, have it wrong. When it comes to such excess, there's not an even-steven trade-off between the right and the left. At the moment, it doesn't appear that Loughner is a product of either right hate-mongering or left hate-mongering. Still, the debate over who's perverting and undermining our national discourse continues. And the winner of this blame-game is obvious: The right is the better shooter.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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David, you can have your opinion but the sad part of it is that you are in the minority. Our President has dealt the extreme left a fatal blow from which they will not recover. He has taken a centrist country so far to the left in two years that he has probably squashed any chance of re-election. The American people will not stand for what is going on in this country right now and the drubbing your party took in the November elections is a precursor for the tsunami that is coming in 2012. Then you guys can get back to what you are good at; writing about ballet, theater and copulating in Hollywood.

January 14 2011 at 9:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Bill Kristol when he wishes to point out irresponsible behavior unbacked by any evidence reminds us of that well known bastion of "far left liberalism" Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy.

In today's world when you seek a well known and universally understood meme for evil and poor behavior you need merely look at the GOP and various anti-semites to assure yourself of being understood as denoting what ought not to happen.

January 14 2011 at 7:39 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

How silly does Mr. Corn think we are? There is enough viciousness on all sides. These kinds of one sided articles that show only one side of the story just perpetuates anger. We all know that both, right and left, in politics can get down and dirty, filthy actually, and saying one or the other has the edge is dishonest.

January 13 2011 at 3:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Christopher J Wi

Does Mr. Corn forget when then nominee Senator Obama told a crowd in 2008, "If they bring a knife to a fight, you bring a gun.....I want you to talk to your neigbors, get in their faces"? Or when Rahm Emmanuel sent a dead fish to an opponent (in a blatant homage to the "Godfather). Oh no, it is the Right that has co-opted such language? Mr. Corn seems to have selective moral outrage when it comes to conservatives. Was there violence or blatant racism at any of these rallies as there were at Latino, pro-illegal alien rallies in Arizona, when bottles were thrown, store windows smashed, police and counter protestors beaten, and told "Go back to Europe, gringo"? Did Tea party members show up at Pres. Obama's inauguration and pelt his car with tomatoes while calling him the "commander in theif" and "illegitimate president"? The fact is the Left only wants to tone things down when they are in power. When they are out of power, such vitriol is simply patriotic dissent.

January 13 2011 at 7:52 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

‎"That [Republican candidate Rick Scott] down there that's running for governor of Florida . . . instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. -- Congressman Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) during the 2010 election cycle

January 13 2011 at 7:13 AM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jason's comment

How terrible is it when Democrats take their cues from Republicans? I wish Democrtats would not sink that low but I guess it is very tempting to demonize as though you are a Republican.
Why do Republicans resent it when their own tractics are used against them? Can anyone point out a dozen right wingers who are civil and decline to demonize anyone who disagrees with them? I bet no examples of anyone in a power position will be found. The scummier one is the more they rise to the top in the right wing universe.

January 14 2011 at 7:44 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Oh...forgot one of the biggest...Kerry, when asked if he was killing two birds with one stone in New Hampshire replied that he should go straight to Pennsylvania Avenue and kill the right bird with one stone.

January 13 2011 at 1:07 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

Throughout history, man has demonstrated that he will not be coerced or owned. The New Hampshire State Motto proudly proclaims - live free or die. Conservatives (and libertarians) stand with the Constitution because it protects and defends liberty for posterity. If that is extreme then we are proud to stand with the law.

It is the left that distorts the Constitution with sophistry and rationalization usurping the people of their natural rights; now that is extreme.

BHO: "The Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf." And thus, by his own words, BHO tells us that his progressive agenda is unconstitutional.

January 12 2011 at 9:38 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply

No matter how you spin in Corn, you and your comrade Krugman, (I think his full facial hair is an attempt to hide the foam)the liberal media, some politicians and this ridiculous sherriff came out swinging within ours of horrible event in Tuscon and started laying specific blame at individuals before anyone had any solid facts. If anything this monster looks like he inhabits the political part of the spectrum that flows back in forth from left to right, that never never land between complete Communism and Fascism. But the reaction of media types like you, Krugman, Matthews has been shameful, and once again decent American people see thru your charade.

January 12 2011 at 4:38 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

People die and a sheriff comes out and blames it on the right. First it will help the defence when this comes to trail and this person was not democrat or republican. This sheriff should be fired. Targets were used on maps in 95, the same as palin. Between parties it is about equal, but the media lean liberal.This shooting was one person with mental problems but now you will hear this at trail because of one liberal sheriff.

January 12 2011 at 9:33 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

It seems to to me that the writer of this article is pick only the most radical right examples and the mildest examples from the right. He chose to use the "might have to use second amendment option", which was only free speech, but neglects to mention the left actually blowing up stuff (Bill Ayers). It tends to make one wonder if he might be a bit one sided in his views.

January 12 2011 at 3:48 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

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