In the wake of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (and the collateral murder of half a dozen others), much discussion has turned to Sarah Palin’s infamous target map, the gun-heavy campaign events held by Jesse Kelly (Giffords’s 2010 opponent) and various examples of violent campaign rhetoric that have come from candidates and opinion-leaders on the Right over the past few years. This is pretty predictable, as is the response: There’s no evidence that Jared Loughner is a Palin supporter, a Kelly supporter or a Tea Party supporter. He’s just a lone nut! Well, maybe. His seemingly insane rhetoric about grammar and mind control strongly recalls that of David Wynn Miller, a prominent figure in the far-right “sovereign citizen” movement. Maybe Miller is insane, too, but the ideology that underlies the sovereign citizen movement has popped up before.
But focusing on Palin’s map — which she ridiculously now wants to claim has “surveyor’s marks” on it — and allowing people to just dismiss Loughner as crazy misses an important, bigger point. For the past two years, conservatives have made their case primarily by stoking fear. They have repeatedly claimed that Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress are going to kill people, trash the economy, let foreign terrorists have the run of the place, etc. This isn’t an exaggeration of what they’re saying — they’ve taken the rhetoric of “genocide” from the far-right anti-abortion movement and scaled it up to their entire platform. So let’s say that Loughner is unstable, as various armchair psychiatrists have already diagnosed him as schizophrenic. A hallmark of this sort of mental illness is the perception of grand forces conspiring against you, or of someone or something being out to get you. Palin’s map is disgusting as campaign rhetoric, but it doesn’t say to an unstable person, “Hey, here’s a reason to go after this person.” But telling your followers that the government is going to pull the plug on grandma or that it’s deliberately setting murderous terrorists loose in America is different. Referring to an abortion provider as “Tiller the killer,” as Bill O’Reilly did repeatedly, is different. When that kind of rhetoric is tolerated, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone murders Dr. George Tiller, or tries to murder Democratic officials.
As much as this behavior, as well as more explicit threats — Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies,” the Tea Party’s “We Came Unarmed This Time” t-shirts — seems to be majorly cresting right now, this is part of a pattern dating back at least to early in the Clinton Administration. In 1994, both Sen. Jesse Helms (Clinton “better not show up around here [Fort Bragg] without a bodyguard”) and Rep. Bob Dornan (“The Second Amendment is…for hunting politicians, like in Grozny, and in the colonies in 1776, or when they take your independence away”) made violent threats against President Clinton. The difference then was that those comments were scandalous, and they were condemned by Republicans and media figures along with Democrats. Now, the conservative media machine allows this type of rhetoric to percolate and largely hide from the mainstream. Most of our officials and media figures now probably have little idea what’s happening in conservative social media, or even much of talk radio and Fox News; meanwhile, there’s much more of it than there was in 1994. To understand the implications of this type of violent and delegitimizing rhetoric, we first need to understand just how prevalent it is and how ingrained it has become in a particular segment of the population.