Will we ever have civility in American political discourse
© Greg Nash

In the wake of last week’s shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and several others at a Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia — and the revelation that the gunman, James T. Hodgkinson, was a Bernie Sanders supporter who hated Republicans — there has been much talk about toxic political rhetoric that encourages violence against opponents.

This is a much-needed conversation; but if it remains a blame game in which each side points fingers at the other, it is the opposite of what we need.

Thus, the New York Times ran a much-criticized editorial that deplored the attack as “evidence of how vicious American politics has become”—and offered a debunked narrative of deadly violence provoked by Republican “incitement.”

The editorial claimed that the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona was linked to a graphic from Sarah Palin’s political action committee showing contested electoral districts, including Giffords’, in “stylized cross hairs.”

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This linkage was rated false by Politifact; the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had been obsessed with Giffords and was almost certainly unaware of the Palin PAC graphic. While the Times ran a correction, this was a blatant attempt to deflect the responsibility toward Republicans (talk about victim-blaming).

 

On the other side, National Review’s Kevin Williamson argued that the Alexandria shooting was the latest in a dangerous trend: “The American Left has embraced political violence.”

Williamson cited riots at the University of California-Berkeley that shut down an appearance by far-right firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos as well as violence at Middlebury College in Vermont, where a talk by conservative scholar Charles Murray was disrupted and an aggressive mob threatened Murray on his way out (the professor escorting him was injured in the melee).

These incidents were troubling, and the official response arguably inadequate.

But are “progressives including mainstream Democrats” really endorsing such violence “as an instrument of liberationist politics,” as Williamson claims?

Not quite.

To make his case, Williamson erroneously imputes to Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) the statement that the anti-Yiannopoulos riots at Berkeley were “a beautiful sight.” 

This claim made the rounds of conservative media outlets in early February. Yet the video of Demings’ remarks makes it fairly clear that she was talking about an earlier, peaceful Berkeley protest against Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge's order Top House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents New Yorkers report receiving ballots with wrong name, voter addresses MORE’s executive order barring entry to the United States to people from several predominantly Muslim countries.

Williamson also mentions Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who “complained that the Trump administration’s insistence that Berkeley protect the safety and civil rights of its students and visitors was an attempt to ‘bully our university into silence.’”

But while Lee did criticize Trump’s threat to cut off funding to UC-Berkeley, her statement explicitly condemned the “unacceptable acts of violence” as “counterproductive and dangerous.”

That leaves two examples: a piece in the left-wing online magazine Salon defending the on-camera punch to Hitler-salute-giving white nationalist Richard Spencer, and an editorial in The Daily Cal, the Berkeley student newspaper, defending the presence of “Antifa”— militant left-wing action groups — at the Yiannopoulos protests as a counterweight to far-right groups. Neither is a mainstream Democratic source.

Yes, one can find leftists taking an indulgent view of the violence used to shut down Murray or Yiannopoulos. But one can also find right-wingers condoning violence by their own. Many Trump supporters defended a man who sucker-punched a protester at a Trump rally in March 2016.

When a black Trump supporter at another rally punched and kicked a protester whose companion was wearing a makeshift Ku Klux Klan hood as an anti-Trump statement, the right-wing blog pundit cheered for the assault and called the protesters “goons.”

Of course, to many liberals, it’s self-evident that if anyone embraces political violence, it’s the right. Just look, they say, at comments by conservative activists and even lawmakers praising guns as a means of self-defense against tyranny.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRon Paul hospitalized in Texas The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Rand Paul says he can't judge 'guilt or innocence' in Breonna Taylor case MORE (R-Ky) was recently criticized for a year-old tweet asserting that the purpose of the Second Amendment is “to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical.” (It was apparently a quote from Fox News analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano, tweeted by a staffer.) Nevada Tea Party activist and Republican congressional candidate Sharron Angle came much closer to advocacy of actual violence when she suggested in 2010 that “Second Amendment remedies” might be necessary if the Democratic Congress could not be stopped at the ballot box. 

And shortly before last November’s election, former Republican congressman Joe Walsh of Illinois tweeted about “grabbing [his] musket” if Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Government funding bill butts up against deadline | Pentagon reports eighth military COVID-19 death | Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push Voters split on whether Trump, Biden will win first debate: poll New Monmouth poll finds Biden with 6-point lead MORE won.

But liberals appalled by such language often fail to recognize that left-wing talk of “resistance” often has a violent subtext, too. Sometimes, it’s not even subtext: days before the Alexandria shooting, Huffington Post blogger Jesse Benn published an essay chiding liberals who reject “a violent response to Trump.” And the left has its own lawmakers with a penchant for pro-violence rhetoric.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), veteran politician and hero of the anti-Trump “Resistance,” recently praised the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of several white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

Those riots caused 50 deaths and turned into a pogrom against Korean-American-owned businesses; yet Waters called them an “insurrection” and a “milestone in the history of black people demanding justice.”

As for actual politically fueled violence, once again neither side is innocent. Recently, a Tennessee woman tried to run her Republican congressman, Rep. David Kustoff, off the road because she was angered by his support for the GOP health care bill.

In 2010, it was several Democratic lawmakers voting for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJudge orders Georgia officials to provide backup paper poll books ahead of election Supreme Court fight should drive Democrats and help Biden Michelle Obama says even former first families can get on each other's nerves during quarantine MORE’s health care legislation who had their offices vandalized and got threats serious enough to warrant police protection.

Today, congressional candidates targeted by threats include Georgia Republican Karen Handel and Iowa Democrat Kim Weaver, who recently dropped out of the race in part due to safety concerns.

Of course, most victims of political violence are ordinary citizens, not politicians. Conservatives believe that the majority of such attacks are directed at Republicans and/or Trump supporters; in response, progressive blogs have catalogued violent acts by pro-Trump perpetrators.

While those lists include dubious examples—such as a mentally ill shooter asking for money “to make America great again” before firing—violent Trump fans are real enough: Just this month, a Trump supporter in Oakley, California allegedly stabbed a man after an argument on a bus.

Even the riots at Berkeley were preceded by the shooting of a protester at an earlier Yiannopoulos event.

Whether political violence is rising or simply getting more attention, there is no doubt that we face an extraordinarily toxic political climate. Heated rhetoric, including violent hyperbole, is an essential part of free speech; even advocacy of violence is constitutionally protected, unless it incites imminent violent action.

But we can and should make such advocacy unacceptable in mainstream discourse, as we have done with bigotry. That will only happen when conservatives, liberals, and others are willing to confront toxic rhetoric in their own ranks instead of “calling out” bad behavior among opponents while excusing it among friends.

Things looked promising when, after the Alexandria shooting, conservative musician Ted Nugent—who had once delivered an onstage rant inviting then-Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to “suck on” and “ride” his rifles — promised to renounce “hateful rhetoric” and urged everyone to “be civil.”

That was Thursday.

By Sunday, Nugent was defending his 2007 comments as a “metaphor” dishonestly misrepresented by the left and accusing liberals of wanting to “burn down buildings.” 

Civility will have to wait another day.

Cathy Young is a regular columnist with Newsday, Reason and The Forward.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.