How much does right-wing rhetoric contribute to right-wing terrorism?

June 9

Yesterday, a man and a woman shot two police officers in a Las Vegas restaurant after saying, “this is a revolution.” Then they draped their bodies in a Gadsden flag. According to reports now coming in, the couple (who later killed themselves) appear to have been white supremacists and told neighbors they had gone to join the protests in support of anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy. It was one more incident of right-wing terrorism that, while not exactly an epidemic, has become enough of a trend to raise some troubling questions.

What I’m about to say will raise some hackles, but we need to talk about it. It’s long past time for prominent conservatives and Republicans to do some introspection and ask whether they’re contributing to outbreaks of right-wing violence.

Before I go on, let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that Republican members of Congress bear direct responsibility for everything some disturbed person from the same side of the political spectrum as them might do. I’m not saying that they are explicitly encouraging violence. Nor am I saying that you can’t find examples of liberals using hyperbolic, irresponsible words.

But what I am saying is this: there are some particular features of conservative political rhetoric today that help create an atmosphere in which violence and terrorism can germinate.

The most obvious component is the fetishization of firearms and the constant warnings that government will soon be coming to take your guns. But that’s only part of it. Just as meaningful is the conspiracy theorizing that became utterly mainstream once Barack Obama took office. If you tuned into one of many national television and radio programs on the right, you heard over and over that Obama was imposing a totalitarian state upon us. You might hear that FEMA was building secret concentration camps (Glenn Beck, the propagator of that theory, later recanted it, though he has a long history of violent rhetoric), or that Obama is seeding the government with agents of the Muslim Brotherhood. You grandfather probably got an email offering proof that Obama is literally the antichrist.

Meanwhile, conservatives have become prone to taking the political disagreements of the moment and couching them in apocalyptic terms, encouraging people to think that if Democrats have their way on any given debate, that our country, or at the very least our liberty, might literally be destroyed.

To take just one of an innumerable number of examples, when GOP Senator Ron Johnson says that the Affordable Care Act is “the greatest assault on freedom in our lifetime,” and hopes that the Supreme Court will intervene to preserve our “last shred of freedom,” is it at all surprising that some people might be tempted to take up arms? After all, if he’s right, and the ACA really means that freedom is being destroyed, then violent revolution seems justified. Johnson might respond by saying, “Well, of course I didn’t mean that literally.” And I’m sure he didn’t — Johnson may be no rocket scientist, but he knows that despite the individual mandate going into effect, there are a few shreds of freedom remaining in America.

But the argument that no sane person could actually believe many of the things conservatives say shouldn’t absolve them of responsibility. When you broadcast every day that the government of the world’s oldest democracy is a totalitarian beast bent on turning America into a prison of oppression and fear, when you glorify lawbreakers like Cliven Bundy, when you say that your opponents would literally destroy the country if they could, you can’t profess surprise when some people decide that violence is the only means of forestalling the disaster you have warned them about.

To my conservative friends tempted to find outrageous things liberals have said in order to argue that both sides are equally to blame, I’d respond this way: Find me all the examples of people who shot up a church after reading books by Rachel Maddow and Paul Krugman, and then you’ll have a case.

In our recent history, every election of a Democratic president is followed by a rise in conspiracy-obsessed right-wing populism. In the 1960s it was the John Birch Society; in the 1990s it was the militia movement shouting about black UN helicopters, and during the Obama presidency it was the Tea Party. Some of those movements are ultimately harmless, but alongside and around them are people who take their rhetoric seriously and lash out in response. After these killings in Nevada, and the murders at a Jewish community center in Kansas, and the murders at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and multiple murders by members of the “sovereign citizens” movement in the last few years, it’s worth remembering that since 9/11, right-wing terrorism has killed many more Americans than al Qaeda terrorism.

And I promise you, these murders in Nevada will not be the last. It may be going too far to say that conservative politicians and media figures whose rhetoric has fed the deranged fantasies of terrorists and killers have blood on their hands. But they shouldn’t have a clear conscience, either.

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