What’s the worst part about horrific, murderous violence in America? Well, except for the death, the ruined lives, the pain and the fear, and the rush to pass laws that wouldn’t have prevented it, I think it has to be the media criticism.
The challenge, at least for conservatives, is that the media’s double standard is so profoundly obvious and at the same so passionately denied that bringing it up feels like an exercise in gaslighting.
If a former Ted Cruz volunteer tried to murder a bunch of Democratic congressmen at a baseball practice, the instant conventional wisdom from the mainstream media would be to blame Donald Trump, Republican rhetoric and conservatism generally. We know this because that is what always happens, even when the villain isn’t a conservative.
When then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot by Jared Lee Loughner in 2011, the media went into paroxysms of finger-pointing sanctimony, insisting that a map Sarah Palin had posted on Facebook was to blame because it had crosshairs drawn over certain targeted districts. It turned out that Loughner was a largely apolitical paranoid schizophrenic and drug abuser prone to extreme delusions and hallucinations. Not only did Loughner believe the government carried out the 9/11 attacks, he thought the conspiracy went much deeper: The government was using mind control through its manipulations of grammar.
And yet, some cherished myths die hard. As news came out that the “Ballfield Shooter,” James Hodgkinson, was a passionate progressive and Bernie Sanders supporter, was a member of a Facebook group called “Terminate The Republican Party” and had deliberately targeted Republicans because they were Republicans, The New York Times posted an editorial that resurrected the utterly debunked “link” between Palin’s map and Loughner, while casting the link between political rhetoric and this week’s shooter as more debatable. (In the face of intense criticism, the Times issued a correction the next day.)
This is not to say that conservatives always color themselves with glory in the wake of these horrors either. In the cases when a murderer is clearly of some kind of right-wing bent, many conservatives rush to insist that right-wing rhetoric either played no role or should not be blamed. That’s defensible in and of itself, but if your position is that political speech should never be indicted when a right-winger commits a crime, you probably shouldn’t let your understandable desire for payback seduce you into insisting that left-wing rhetoric is to blame when the shooter is a left-winger.
What is remarkable about this fixation with political rhetoric is how shallow it is. I think political rhetoric, on the right and the left, does play a role in violence, though perhaps not in the case of Loughner or the equally deranged Sandy Hook shooter who murdered all those children.
But not every murderer is a paranoid schizophrenic. Some of them get their ideas from somewhere. Popular culture is surely one source. Another is our political rhetoric. The literary critic Wayne Booth defined rhetoric as “the art of probing what men believe they ought to believe.” The political rhetoric of America these days is deeply sick, afflicted with a zero-sum tribalism: What is good for my side must also be bad for their side.
Where does that come from? I can come up with a dozen partial or possible theories (in part because I’ve been writing a book on all this for the last several years). But I think one contributor to this dire predicament is obvious: the size and scope of government.
For decades we’ve invested in the federal government ever-greater powers while at the same time raising the expectations for what government can do even higher. The rhetoric of the last three presidents has been wildly outlandish about what can be accomplished if we just elect the right political savior. George W. Bush insisted that “when somebody hurts, government has to move.” Barack Obama promised the total transformation of America in palpably messianic terms. Donald Trump vowed that electing him would solve all of our problems and usher in an era of never-ending greatness and winning.
When you believe — as Hodgkinson clearly did — that all of our problems can be solved by flicking a few switches in the Oval Office, it’s a short trip to believing that those who stand in the way are willfully evil enemies bent on barring the way to salvation. That belief won’t turn everyone into a murderer, but it shouldn’t be that shocking that it would turn someone into one.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.