Mar 1 2011

No Culture of Vitriol on the Right?

From metaphors to threats to actual bloodshed

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Talk Radio News Service

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Talk Radio News Service

During the 2010 campaign, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin published a map on her Facebook page (Associated Press, 3/24/10) with crosshairs targeting 20 Democratic congressional incumbents, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D.-Ariz.), who was later critically injured in the January mass shooting in Tucson. Palin rallied opponents of the healthcare bill with the tweeted slogan (L.A. Times, 3/26/10) “Don’t retreat, instead—RELOAD!”

Barack Obama, on the other hand, revved up his base in the 2008 campaign by promising, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun” (Politico, 6/14/08). So in the debate over political civility in the aftermath of Tucson, why pick on Palin? “The reality is everyone bears some responsibility,” declared the Washington Post’s Dan Balz (1/10/11), with NBC’s David Gregory (Meet the Press, 1/9/11) blaming “vitriol on both sides” and the New York Times (1/9/11) pointing to “simple political passion at both ends of the ideological spectrum.”

Leaders of both major parties have employed martial rhetoric, but the context of these macho metaphors is entirely different. While Obama was paraphrasing Sean Connery in The Untouchables, Palin was evoking a continuum on the right that connects violent imagery, explicit threats, concrete displays of firepower and actual bloodshed.

As part of the campaign that visually targeted Giffords with rifle sights, Palin endorsed Republican candidates whose campaigns featured menacing displays of live gunfire. “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly,” read the campaign flier for Kelly, Giffords’ 2010 congressional opponent. At a Republican Party event in Florida, GOP congressional candidate Robert Lowry shot at a human-shaped target labeled with the initials of his Democratic opponent, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Washington Post, 1/17/11; South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/9/09).

While Palin was firing up the rank-and-file on Twitter, Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa) was addressing an angry crowd of healthcare reform opponents (FAIR Blog, 3/26/10): “Let’s beat the other side to a pulp!… Let’s chase them down! There’s going to be a reckoning.” That’s creepy, but still metaphorical; King wasn’t actually advocating that his listeners commit assault. What wasn’t metaphorical was King’s suggestion in the same speech that if “Obamacare” passed, opponents might have to turn to secession: “If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they’d be the folks who were standing with us the last few days. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that!”

This is aside from the torrent of belligerent rage and apocalyptic paranoia that spews forth from right-wing media outlets like Fox News (FAIR Blog, 11/10/10), particularly from its popular host, Glenn Beck. Beck acted out poisoning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Huffington Post, 8/6/09), declared (Media Matters, 10/15/10) that government officials bent on forcibly vaccinating his children would “meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson,” and presented a scenario (2/20/09) in which “progressive” government actions—e.g., increased taxation, the nationalization of industries—give rise to “citizen militias in the South and West taking up arms against the U.S. government.”

This escalation in violent right-wing rhetoric coincides with a dramatic upswing in violent threats against government officials: U.S. Marshals are facing more than double the number of threats against judges and prosecutors (Washington Post, 5/25/09), and Capitol Police noted nearly triple the threats against congressmembers in the first quarter of 2010 (Washington Post, 4/9/10).

And alongside the threats came actual violence; the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (FAIR Blog, 1/12/11) compiled a long list of violent political incidents going back to July 2008. As with the Tucson shooting, attributed to Jared Loughner, most of these were committed by evidently unstable individuals obsessed by anti-government ideology; in almost every case, they gave indications of being influenced by right-wing propaganda—as does Loughner (L.A. Times, 1/12/11).

But for media conservatives the outrage was not the vitriol on the right but the idea that anyone would hold them responsible for the violence that followed. David Brooks (New York Times, 1/10/11) rejected as “vicious charges” the notion that the gunman “unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin.” George Will (Washington Post, 1/11/11) bitterly denounced such suggestions as the “political opportunism” of “charlatans.”

Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 1/12/11) marveled that a charge could be “so reckless, so scurrilous and so unsupported by evidence” as the suggestion that the GOP’s rhetorical gasoline might someday find a match.