Just a Nut Case: The Post-Tucson Bait and Switch

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 2:38 PM PST

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief coming from the right when accused Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner was revealed to be just another disturbed young man, clearly suffering from untreated mental illness. After all, conservative commentators leaped to point out, if the guy is a nut job, then all the right-wing political attacks on Democratic party office holders and candidates for office didn’t have any or much effect on the shooting.

That interpretation of events seems to have taken hold in the public mind. Most people don’t think there is any connection between the Tucson shooting and what the pollsters call "political discourse," according to the new ABC-Washington Post poll released Tuesday morning.

The public overwhelmingly sees the country's political discourse as negative in tone – 82 percent say so, including three in 10 who say it’s “angry.” Still there’s a division, 49-49 percent, on whether it’s created a climate that could encourage political violence.

On the Tucson shootings specifically, 54 percent of Americans do not think the political discourse contributed to the incident, while 40 percent think it did. Those who do see a connection divide on whether it was a strong factor, or not strong.

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The survey more generally finds blame for the political tone spread across a variety of groups. Half the public says the tea party political movement and its supporters, as well as political commentators on both sides of the ideological divide, have "crossed the line" in terms of attacking the other side. Forty-five percent say the Republican Party and its supporters have done the same; fewer, 39 percent, say so about the Democratic Party.

Now, this doesn't make much sense to me. Jared Loughner may be mad, but there's clearly a method to his madness. He may be psychotic, but his psychosis manifested itself in a particular way. After all, Loughner didn't attack members of his family. He didn't go postal at the workplace. He didn't shoot up the military recruiters or the college that rejected him. No. When he picked up his legally obtained assault weapon, he chose to try and assasinate a member of the United States Congress. And not just any old member, but one who had been targeted, singled out for political attack, reviled by the right wing. And this amidst a call by several right-wing figures for their followers to become "armed and dangerous" to defend their liberties against such Democratic party usurpers as Gabrielle Giffords. How can you say this attack is unrelated to the current American political culture?

As Lynn Parramore, editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s blog New Deal 2.0, puts it, one must ignore that political culture, right-wing ideology, and Sarah Palin. Otherwise, one will be taking advantage of the botched murder, and thereby contributing to a witch hunt. To avoid such accusations, the majority of the populace are willing to deny the following facts, as outlined by Parramore:

  • That a disturbed young man allegedly went on a killing rampage. That his rage did not manifest in an attack on a neighbor. Or a family member. Or a police officer. It manifested in the attempt to assassinate a member of the United States Congress.
  • That the disturbed young man recorded his ramblings on YouTube prior to the rampage. That his disturbance did not take the form of claims that he was pursued by aliens. Or expressions of a belief that he was Messiah. His ravings concerned the illegitimacy of the U.S. government and its currency.
  • That obsessions with the legitimacy of the U.S. government and its currency are not associated at this moment in history with liberals. Or centrists. Or members of the Flat Earth Society. They are the pet concerns of right wing ideologues.
  • That the target of the assassination attempt, Congresswoman Giffords, had been the object of threats, violent rhetoric and the witness to alarming incidents in public venues, including the sight of a gun dropping out of the clothing of a man holding an anti-government placard at a recent gathering. That she publicly expressed her fear of the escalation by naming a public figure, whose use of violent imagery was directed at her. The person named was not Howard Dean. Or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Or President Obama. The person named was Sarah Palin.
  • That Sarah Palin, the person Giffords publicly named as a spreader of dangerous rhetoric, is a political figure. That she is not associated with progressives. Or centrists. Or moderate Republicans. She is associated with the Tea Party.
  • That over the last two years, the Tea Party has been associated with the expression of dissatisfaction towards the current state of the nation. That this dissatisfaction has not expressed itself in demands for a renewal of the brotherhood of mankind. Or a focus on peaceful protest. It has been expressed in slogans like “Don’t retreat, RELOAD” (Sarah Palin); a call for “Second Amendment remedies” (Nevada Tea Party Senate candidate); and “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous” (Congresswoman and Tea Partier Michelle Bachman).
  • That the very forces in our society that might have prevented the massacre — namely strong gun laws and adequate services for the mentally ill — are precisely the forces that a certain section of the American political spectrum seeks to undermine. That this section is not the far left. Or the U.S. Pacifist Party. Or the Green Party. Those that most loudly advocate weak gun laws and austerity measures that cut off health care are typically right wing conservatives.
  • That the person who has had the task of maintaining law and order in Tucson, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, expressed his deep concern about the community just after the shooting. That the thing most troubling to him was not the real estate crisis in Tucson. Or unemployment. Or the need for looser gun laws. He specifically named violent political rhetoric as the thing that kept him up at night.

In the face of this preponderance of fact, the right has once again managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and sieze hold of the political rhetoric. That they did so in the current circumstances–while a judge and a young child lie dead, and a member of Congress struggles to recover from a bullet through her brain–seems nothing short of astonishing. But then, one has to remember how completely the right has ruled the political discourse in this country for at least 30 years. 

Since the birth of the New Right  back during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the right has ceaselessly steeped its political program  in an  ideology of “principle,”  as opposed to wishy-washy Democratic pragmatism. Principle, drawn from the study of the literal Bible text and the Constitution, was to be the foundation of rightward change, from the Reagan Revolution through Bush II. The Democrats largely ignored the ideological attack, laughing it off as the work of a bunch of crackpots. They also offered no competing ideology, having denounced liberalism and abandoned traditional  Democratic principles. 

The result was the repeated loss of the presidency, of the Congress, of any control over the economy and of foreign policy. Through sheer ignorance and arrogance, plus a dose of ideological bankruptcy, the Democrats willed themselves out of power. And when they managed to get some back, with the election of Obama in 2008, they had nothing in their arsenal with which to meet the right-wing ideological onslaught that followed.

Beyond the mainstream tenets of conservative principal, the further shores of the right fired up a fresh hodgepodge of nativist politics that spurred on the revival of  new militant white power groups, the rise of the militia movement, then the Minutemen, and then the more militant members of the Tea Parties. These days, it’s hard to tell the fringe from the center right, and what we used to call “extremist” views are expressed on the campaign trail and sometimes on the floor of the Congress.

But none of this, of course, has anything to do with the shooting in Tucson.

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