Four days ago, at the left-wing People’s Summit in Chicago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ended a speech to 4,000-odd activists with a 15-minute Q&A. The final question dealt with the political anger that Democrats, according to Sanders, had failed to grapple with in 2016. The left’s response to that anger was obvious: It had to be channeled into “constructive change.”
“All over this country, there are people who are furious,” Sanders said. “Those people are angry, and what Trump has done is take that anger and say: The reason you are hurting is because some Mexican guy is picking strawberries for $8 an hour. That’s your problem. There’s a Muslim over there — that’s your problem. Our job is to bring people together and say: If you are angry because your standard of living is going down, because you’re working longer hours for lower wages, you’re worried about your kids, you should be angry. But take your anger out on the right people.”
The crowd roared its approval. “Our job is to talk to people about the role Wall Street plays, the role the fossil-fuel industry plays, the role that the Koch brothers play,” Sanders said. “Our job is to take that anger and transform it into a constructive role, to take on the ruling class of this country that has done us so much harm.”
Sitting in the audience, I tweeted the line that had started the most applause.
Wednesday, after news spread that the man suspected of shooting at members of Congress and security details at the House Republicans’ baseball practice had supported Sanders for president, I noticed the tweet circulating more widely than it had Saturday. Several Twitter users cited the quote without the source and sent links from conservative writers who are adept at amplifying news and quotes from social media. Earlier in the day, by chance, Ben Shapiro quoted the tweet in National Review as an example of the left embracing a “national pathology” of anger.
But Sanders, who condemned Wednesday’s attack on the Senate floor, had been clear. There was never any suggestion that political “anger” needed to be channeled into violence. A 2011 statement from Sanders on the shooting of Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords that made the rounds Wednesday — and was held up as proof of hypocrisy — was largely a rundown of incidents in which Democrats felt threatened and a call on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to “denounce the increasingly violent rhetoric coming from the right-wing and exert his influence to create a civil political environment.”
The search for an example of Sanders calling for actual violence was fruitless — part of a snipe hunt that sometimes cited the rush in 2011 to link the Giffords shooting, carried out by a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, to right-wing politics. James Hodgkinson, the shooter Wednesday in Virginia, had left a long trail of left-wing political opinions, from an appearance at a 2011 Occupy rally to memberships in anti-Trump Facebook groups. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump Jr. were among the Republicans linking offensive portrayals of Trump, including comedian Kathy Griffin’s pose with a severed “Trump” head, to the shooting.
“The intensity is very real,” Gingrich said on Fox News, “whether it’s a so-called comedian holding up the president’s head covered in blood or right here in New York City, a play that shows the president being assassinated, or it’s Democratic leading national politicians using vulgarity because they can’t find any common language to talk.”
Also on Wednesday, some in conservative media gilded the lily. A headline at the Drudge Report read “Gunman: ‘Kill as many Republicans as possible.’ ” That was a quote from Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) describing what he thought the gunman’s motivation had been, not a quote from the gunman. The editor of the conservative Vessel News shared a video by former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch and asked whether the shooter had heeded her “call” for “blood on the streets.” In reality, Lynch was referring to civil rights protesters who “bled” and “died.”
Jack Posobiec, a right-wing activist and author who has asked (but not gotten answers to) questions at White House news briefings, tweeted a January story about Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) encouraging liberals to “fight” the Trump administration “in the streets;” even without context, it was a clear reference to protests.
Posobiec also drew attention to @OfficialAntifa, a hoax account that claimed “anti-fascists” were celebrating the shooting. That was on brand; in January, BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein cited leaked text messages to show that Posobiec had worked to “discredit” Trump protesters by blending in and using violent slogans.
Other conservatives condemned the rush to blame the left for the shooting. “Neither Bernie Sanders, nor any person or faction associated with him that I can tell, supports violence as of means of pursuing political objectives,” David Harsanyi wrote in the Federalist. “Sanders has zero responsibility for Hodgkinson’s actions.”
But as the day went on, the more popular sentiments on the right were focused on whether the broader left deserved blame for the shootings. “The Democrat base voter who shot up the Republican Congress today in Virginia, he was a mainstream Democrat voter,” said Rush Limbaugh on the Wednesday episode of his show. “He was not a Looney Tune kook burger.”