There is a striking parallel between the years 2009 and 1993. In both, a Democrat becoming president of the United States coincided with a startling rise of radicalism on the political right.
In 1993 the face of right radicalism was the militia movement. With Bill Clinton in office paramilitary insurrectionists found their numbers expanding and their presence in the national political debate accorded novel legitimacy. Militia leaders appeared as talking heads on cable news networks and commanded “understanding” from right-wing Republican office holders.
In April 1995, militia members, hoping to set off a general paramilitary insurrection, blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Responsibility for the attack was quickly established and the militia movement returned to the fringes of American scene. No more militia talking heads. No more Republican understanding.
In 2009, with Barack Obama coming into office, and continuing to today, the new face of right-wing radicalism has been the Tea Party, a movement that enjoys the active support of a national television network, and which is contending for domination inside the Republican Party.
While the Tea Party is a far cry from the militia movement, there has been no shortage of insurrectionary rhetoric from it or, for that matter, from Fox News and, in particular, Glenn Beck, since the accession of Barack Obama to the presidency. Americans have become used to talk of “second amendment solutions”, displays of weaponry at political events, vehement disruption of meetings from town halls to the U.S. Congress, among much else since the Sarah Palin vice-presidential candidacy of 2008.
The murders and attempted assassination this weekend in Tucson have thrown this heated rhetoric into question—what is the connection between the rhetoric and the violence? From the right, the answer seems to be: none at all. And further, that raising this question in the first place is an attempt to muzzle the right. William Kristol calls it “McCarthyism.”
From the left, the dominant conviction is that the rhetoric, and the failure of Republican Party officials to denounce it, has created a climate that makes this sort of violence inevitable. Never mind, as the right argues, that the would-be assassin seems clearly crazy. The climate of intimidation and threat of violence is just the thing that pushes such a mind over the edge.
For the Republicans, or the Tea Party, or Fox, this argument is anathema. To accept it in any manner is to concede the premise that something has been amiss, that some foul genie has been loosed, on the right.
Locally, we’ve had a near-miss on this score. Last July, Byron Williams, in body armor, engaged Oakland police in a furious freeway gun battle as he was stopped on his way to San Francisco to shoot up the offices and kill leading members of the ACLU and the Tides Foundation. He has been explicit about learning of Tides from the blackboard of Glenn Beck. Yet nothing in this incident has had any impact on the rhetoric of either Beck or the right generally.
The ability of the right to escape responsibility or consequences for Byron Williams foreshadows the likely impact—or, better, lack of impact—of the events of Tucson. Unlike in the case of Oklahoma City, where the perpetrator was explicit in his insurrectionary aim and managed to pull off his catastrophe, in Tucson there is enough ambiguity about the perpetrator that radicalism on the right is unlikely to feel the need to abate. In the absence of, as it were, a smoking gun—the perpetrator himself assuming responsibility in the name of the movement—the impact of Tucson is likely to be an amplification rather than any amelioration of the fierceness of our political climate.