Jared Loughner’s attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is a wakeup call for us to confront the reality that hate and violence are encoded in the political DNA of the American Right.
Since Obama took office in January 2009, there have been seven separate cases of disturbed white men committing political murders after becoming hopped up on guns, right-wing media and anti-government and anti-Obama blather. And this doesn’t even include Loughner’s attack or other incidents where the gunman was intent on killing but didn’t succeed.
Compare this with the lack of political violence during the Bush era, when passions were equally inflamed. This stark contrast demands an explanation for why there have been so many political murder sprees in less than two years. The answer can be found within the strain of reactionary politics that dominates the American Right. The Right thrives on mobilizing group resentment, and the range of its targets over the last 50 years is astonishing: gays and lesbians, African Americans, Latinos, feminists, welfare recipients, reproductive-rights activists, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, government officials, criminals, liberals, antiwar activists, organized labor.
The group resentment is fomented and stoked within the right-wing echo chamber, in increasingly apocalyptic terms. With swaths of the public alienated and looking for easy answers in a time of epic joblessness, they latch onto scapegoats that demagogues like Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage provide. As a result millions of alienated Americans are convinced their problems and the national malaise is the fault of Mexicans, liberals, abortion providers and homosexuals. Politicians willing to exploit this hatred can find a large and passionate base. Because extremism stands out in our media-saturated culture, those voices and politicians who are the most outrageous tend to be the most successful. This creates a politics that makes compromise and reasoned discourse all but impossible. Add to that a political system dominated by corporate money, which makes addressing social ills all but impossible, and you have a public seething with anger but with no ready outlet.
In a society awash in guns and a culture enthralled with violence, it becomes inevitable that some on the fringe, mentally and socially, will grab their guns and start blazing away, especially after they have been told society is collapsing and the forces of darkness – as represented by the demonized groups and individuals such as Muslims and Obama – are coming for you. The only surprise is that there haven’t been more Jared Loughners in the last two years.
The series of political murders is appalling, but the greater danger is an organized social expression of the rage. Now, fascism is one of the most-overused terms in American political discourse, and we are a long way from jackbooted thugs kicking down our doors and dragging is off to death camps. But we are in a proto-fascistic moment where forces of reaction – those who seek a hierarchical society based on mythologized notions of traditional identity – are allied with a section of capital and are increasingly willing to use violence to achieve their aims. (By “Right,” I mean reactionary right as I explain below. Others on the Right, such as libertarians, oppose much of the scapegoating and demonization upon that reactionaries thrive.)
Denying that the Right mobilizes group hatred or apportioning blame across the political spectrum – such as the bland MoveOn petition calling for all Congress members and TV pundits to end “all overt and implied threats of violence” or Keith Olbermann’s “we need to put the gun metaphors away and permanently. Left, right, middle” – only lets the Right off the hook for instigating violence.
The day after the shooting, the New York Times wrote, “extremism, antigovernment sentiment and even simple political passion at both ends of the ideological spectrum have created a climate promoting violence.” This false equivalence, prevalent throughout much of the “liberal media,” also gives cover to the Right’s violent rhetoric because it can always claim the Left is to blame as well. Right-wing pundits and politicians may briefly “tone it down,” even as they lament the bombast on the “other side,” but the hate will come back with a vengeance, just as it did after Oklahoma City because mobilizing resentment is the modus operandi of the reactionary Right.
Imagine how the Right would have reacted during the Bush presidency if:
- After Keith Olbermann attacks the Heritage Foundation on his show 29 separate times, a “conservative hunter” and Olbermann fan engages in a shootout with D.C. police with three separate firearms and a “small arsenal of ammunition.” After being captured, he says “his intention was to start a revolution by killing people of importance at the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.”
- A black nationalist in Pittsburgh fearing the Bush administration is going to ban guns and set up FEMA internment camps shoots to death three police officers.
- A socialist and 9-11 conspiracy theorist shoots and wounds two guards at the Pentagon.
- An antiwar activist flies a small plane into a U.S. military installation, killing an Army officer and leaving behind a manifesto that blames weapons makers, warmongers and imperialists for killing millions in Bush’s wars while the “American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies, are murdering tens of thousands of people a year.”
Many more examples could be added, but the point is, the Right would be calling for “real Americans” to hunt down and kill leftists, and the Bush administration would probably have charged liberal pundits with “material support for terrorism.”
That’s why Jared Loughner’s politics are largely beside the point. He appears more deranged than political, though his ramblings do hit right-wing hot-button ideas of anti-government, treason against the constitution and a gold-backed currency. What’s more relevant is that the massacre is just the latest one in the Obama era and that his intended target, Giffords, was a woman, Jewish, in favor of the health care bill, opposed to Arizona’s racial profiling law and a Democrat. Every one of these groups and issues are targets of various sectors of the Right.
The Birthplace of Left and Right
The roots of right-wing political violence go back 200 years to the French Revolution. That was the birthplace of Left and Right, and the conflict between those seeking a radically democratic and egalitarian society versus reactionaries, those desiring a society based on tradition and hierarchy. In the early 19th century, reactionaries favored the church, the king, the aristocracy and property, today they are for patriotism, Christianity (with a few exceptions), the free market and class, white, male and heterosexual privileges. Over the last two centuries, the Right has always mobilized group resentment and difference based on these various categories.
A recent example is the “Ground Zero Mosque” hysteria, a case study in the reactionary Right promoting group hatred that ends in violence. In the New York Review of Books last August, two historians described how the imagery used to whip up today’s anti-Islamic fervor is disturbingly similar to the anti-Catholic nativism among American Protestants in the 19th century. “For much of the nineteenth century Catholics in America were the unassimilated, sometimes violent ‘religious other.’ Often they did not speak English or attend public schools. Some of their religious women—nuns—wore distinctive clothing. Their religious practices and beliefs—from rosaries to transubstantiation—seemed to many Americans superstitious nonsense.”
But it’s not history alone. There is organization and planning, in this case the deliberate stoking of anti-Muslim nativism by the Right. Max Blumenthal connected the dots between various right-wing funders, organizations, leaders and activists, concluding, “the Islamophobic crusade … now belongs to leading Republican presidential candidates, top-rated cable news hosts, and crowds of Tea Party activists.” And as the bigoted fervor peaked before Sept. 11 last year, so did the violence from a stabbing of a Muslim cabdriver in New York City to arson, bomb and vandalism on mosques and mosque sites in Tennessee, Texas and Florida.
Also notable is the vitriol against the LGBT community – equating homosexuality with pedophilia, claiming gays try to “recruit” children, downplaying anti-gay violence, stating “Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler,” and even calling for the execution of gays – that is a staple of Christian Right groups such as the American Family Association, Traditional Values Coalition, Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, all of which find a welcome home inside the GOP’s big tent. This rhetoric quickly finds its way into the right-wing echo chamber whether in Rush Limbaugh’s bigotry, Michael Savage’s venom or Fox News in general, which is fond of equating homosexuality with pedophilia. Finding a wedge issue, right-wing politicians pile on with more gay-bashing. On a campaign swing through Brooklyn last October, the Republicans' New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino warned that children are being “brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option.” Paladino’s comments were especially heinous coming on the heels three separate incidents of anti-gay violence in New York City.
The Right reflexively denies responsibility for creating a culture of violence and hate even as its most prominent pundits and politicians continue to do so. Of course, the same standard is never applied to Muslims charged with trying to carry out violent attacks on U.S. soil. Juan Cole points out that “right-wing Muslim crackpots and the right-wing American crackpots are haunted by similar anxieties,” so it’s time to start using the term “white terrorism” to refer to these attacks.
Other than Muslims, Latino immigrants are on the receiving end of more right-wing vituperation than anyone else, which also bleeds over into deadly violence. As the issue of immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border heated up in recent years, the right-wing media was aflame with caustic rhetoric while the FBI logged a 53 percent rise in hate crimes against Hispanics from 2003 to 2009. In 2007, Lou Dobbs Tonight, the O’Reilly Factor and Glenn Beck discussed illegal immigration on a stupendous 402 shows combined. Much of it was outright demagoguery: talk of an “illegal alien crime wave” that never existed, falsehoods claiming undocumented immigrants consume more in services than they provide in taxes, and conspiracy theories about a North American Union and secret “Reconquista” plans for Mexico to reclaim the Southwest.
The dehumanizing rhetoric in the right-wing media was (and is) buttressed with terms like invasion, disease, plague and cancer when referring to the immigrants. The link to violence is even clearer as Lou Dobbs lionized white supremacists like the Federation for American Immigration Reform and militias like the Minuteman Project. In 2007, Dobbs prominently backed a sweeping law against undocumented immigrants in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Fourteen months later and just 20 miles from Hazleton, Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old Mexican, was murdered by teenagers who yelled racial slurs and “this is America, go back to Mexico” as they kicked him to death. According to a New York Times report, “Many people believe the debate fueled by Hazleton’s actions helped create the environment that led to Mr. Ramirez’s death.”
Left and Right Are Not Equivalent
A second reason for a wake-up call is to dispense with the idiocy that the Left and Right are equivalent, which was the premise of Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” Sure, there are plenty of nutty leftists who believe the Bush administration carried out the 9-11 attacks, but none (or even all combined) have a smidgen of the power or influence of the hundreds of right-wing politicians and pundits who are birthers or call Obama a socialist. During the Bush presidency, was there even one case of a liberal going on a political murder rampage in eight years? How about one example of a leftist carrying a gun at a Bush rally – where people were routinely arrested for the content of their T-shirts – unlike the dozen men who openly packed heat at an Obama rally in Arizona or the individual outside an Obama event in New Hampshire with a pistol strapped to his leg totting a sign threatening, “It is time to water the tree of Liberty”?
Likewise, a random blog posting by an unknown liberal (the “dead to me” comment about Giffords that the Daily Kos removed and which is now ricocheting around the right-wing echo chamber) is of minuscule significance next to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Cal Thomas, Michael Savage and many other right-wing mouthpieces constantly comparing Obama to Hitler, painting bleak visions of social collapse, fomenting revolution endlessly and calling on their followers to “grab your guns.” It is no wonder that from 2008 to 2009 the number of conspiracist and antigovernment Patriot groups soared from 149 to 512 and the number of militias from 42 to 127.
Glenn Beck in particular loves to talk about history, but you will never find him delivering a honest appraisal of the history of the Americas since Columbus: the genocide of indigenous peoples, the countless millions of Africans who perished in the middle passage or under chattel slavery, the repeated pogroms against Asians, Mexicans and blacks in the 19th and 20th century. David Neiwert, in his book The Eliminationists, recaps much of this history from the deliberate extermination of Native peoples over nearly 400 years to the few survivors who still live under appalling conditions, mainly in the Western U.S. There is the post-Civil War history of KKK terror, 1,322 documented lynchings from just 1890-1902, repeated incidents of deadly ethnic cleansing of Black enclaves in Midwestern and Southern towns in the early 20th century, and the vicious white backlash in the Civil Rights era. Neiwert also writes of little-known instances of anti-Asian violence in the late 19th century that precede the internment of some 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War Two.
Neiwert argues these are all examples of “eliminationism” – “a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.” He adds, “Eliminationism has become an endemic feature of modern movement conservatism …. It shows itself as an unwillingness to argue the facts or merits of issues and to demand outright the suppression or violent oppression (and ultimately the purgation) of elements deemed harmful to American society.” Ground zero for eliminationist rhetoric is the right-wing media, where comments about “poisoning Pelosi,” fantasizing about “killing Michael Moore,” telling listeners they should “shoot...dead” 9-11 conspiracy theorists, “don’t kill all the liberals, leave...two on every campus; living fossils,” and much, much more.
The atrocities committed throughout U.S. history often enjoyed broad public support, but they were not without active opposition. As a nation, we still continue to battle over these crimes, and one can usually find the Right trying to justify, sanitize or deny them. A small sampling includes Mississippi Republican Governor Haley Barbour fondly remembering the White Citizens Councils, which were the middle-class Klan in the 1950s. A few months ago Rush Limbaugh downplayed the genocide of Native Americans asking, where are the white man’s reparations for being introduced to tobacco? In 2006, Glenn Beck invoked the internment of Japanese-Americans in warning that Muslims will be put behind “razor wire” if they aren’t “the first ones in the recruitment office lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head.”
And last year, the eve of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, was marked by Republican governors issuing proclamations marking April as “Confederate History Month” while excluding mention of slavery.
The Right’s relation to reality is so tenuous that it still tries to maintain the Civil War was an issue of “states’ rights” and Republican politicians are still talking secession or asserting states’ rights in opposing the Obama health care plan. What most on the right want to forget is that five of the 11 Southern states that seceded cited preserving the institution of slavery as their reason in revolting against the Union. The right’s denial of atrocities over hundreds of years of history is matched by its denial of the political violence over the last two.
There is one more key component to the violence this time: a culture that glorifies guns and violence. Need we be reminded how gun stores reported a doubling or tripling of sales right after Obama’s 2008 election?
When you add it all up the right-wing violence was all too predictable. The Department of Homeland Security’s April 2009 rather tepid report on “Rightwing Extremism” – which was met by howls of outrage from conservative pundits – described how the threat of “violent attacks” was increasing due to “the prolonged economic downturn,” “the election of the first African American president,” the possibility of firearms restrictions and the recruitment of returning military vets by right-wing extremists.
The report, which DHS quickly retracted, concluded “lone wolf extremists” in particular posed a grave danger and came chillingly true to life in mere months. In May, 2009, abortion provider George Tiller was murdered in his Wichita, Kansas church by an anti-abortion extremist (years earlier Tiller had been shot in both arms by another anti-abortion activist and had his clinic bombed); in June, neo-Nazi and white supremacist James Von Brunn killed a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; and in July, unemployed truck driver Jim Adkisson killed two and wounded seven in a shotgun attack on the congregation of a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tenn., leaving behind a note stating his “hatred of the liberal movement...as well as gays.”
These killings were an overture to the town-hall rage during the health care debate in the summer of 2009 and occurred as the Secret Service was overwhelmed by the nearly 1,000 death threats a month against President Obama.
There is a third reason why the Arizona massacre should be a wake-up call. The Right’s response showcases the shopworn tactics it uses to avoid responsibility. Top of the list is for politicians to declaim cultivating an atmosphere of violence. Palin’s crosshairs on Giffords were just “a surveyor’s symbol,” and don’t mention that “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” tweet following passage of the health care bill last March and the subsequent rash of violence and threats against at least four of Palin’s targets, including Giffords. Ignore how Giffords’ opponent staged a “target for victory” campaign event to “remove” her from office while offering constituents a chance to fire a “fully automatic M16.” Conveniently forget about Michele Bachmann telling her constituents to be “armed and dangerous,” Michael Steele calling for Nancy Pelosi to be put on the “firing line,” and Sharron Angle suggesting “Second Amendment remedies.”
Certainly rhetoric like this had nothing to do with the Tea Party mob on Capitol Hill last year yelling racial and anti-gay slurs at Congress members during the health care vote or the 300 percent increase in threats against members of Congress in early 2010, much of it coming from gun nuts OD’ing on right-wing media, and mostly against Democrats.
Another tactic is to obfuscate how the perpetrators of violence are tied to the Right by painting them as leftists no matter how thin the evidence. If that doesn’t work try turning the tables, such as Erick Erickson did, by writing that “by perpetuating the lie...that the Right and the Tea Party incited this evil act, the Left and media may very well incite violence against the Right.” Also, the alleged killer was “a disturbed individual whose act cannot be explained by relating it to politics or any rational motive.” If all else fails, decry “the politicization of tragedy.”
If anything, the tragedy was the result of the reactionary Right’s politics of demonizing the other. The time has come to attack the Right, not with guns, but with words and ideas to expose its destructive and deadly politics.
This article was originally published on AlterNet.