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


David Corn

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.

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