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Opinion Conservative media try to divert blame for Highland Park massacre

Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Whenever there’s another horrific mass shooting, conservatives experience cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling that occurs when two beliefs come into conflict. On one hand, they feel strongly that it should be easy for almost anyone to purchase military-style weapons designed to kill large numbers of human beings. On the other hand, they agree that mass shootings committed with those weapons are a bad thing.

They resolve this by deciding, and trying to convince others, that the guns have absolutely nothing to do with the carnage. This requires diversion, delusion, and dissembling, to a degree that seems to ratchet up in intensity with each mass shooting.

Which is where the conservative media come in. If you’re feeling unsettled about the murder of seven people at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill. and what it might say about your party’s gun fetish (and perhaps your own), they’ll tell you how to really understand what happened:

  • Fox News host Tucker Carlson blamed the massacre on medication given to young people, bleak economic prospects, and women nagging young men: “The authorities in their lives — mostly women — never stops lecturing them about their so-called privilege.” He added: “So, a lot of young men in America are going nuts. Are you surprised?”
  • Carlson’s colleague Laura Ingraham homed in on the real culprit: marijuana. “What can regular pot use trigger in young men in particular? Psychosis and other violent personality changes,” she said, blaming the media for “covering up the truth about the growing scourge of violent psychosis in our young people” created by weed.
  • Newsmax host Greg Kelly decided the shooter must be some kind of leftist, even though the minimal political views he had appear to be a barely coherent mishmash, based on what we know. Kelly said: “He looks a little antifa-ish, doesn’t he?”
  • Conservative radio and TV host Mark Levin saw the big picture, blaming “Cultural decay, the decay of the civil society, the war on cops, the way that human life is viewed, whether it's abortion, infanticide, whatever the issue.”

This illustrates an important function that conservative media, especially Fox News, play for the Republican base. Sometimes those media tell the base what to think, or what to think about, offering a buffet of stories and issues they’re supposed to be mad about at a particular moment.

But at times like this, they provide the base with arguments. It’s not about whether those arguments could actually persuade your niece during a Thanksgiving squabble, or whether they could survive a moment’s introspection. It’s just something to say, an answer to have at your fingertips that you can throw back at liberals and something you can tell yourself when you’re unfortunate enough to be exposed to a competing idea.

It doesn’t even have to make any sense at all. And the weaker the argument is, the more important it is that it activates ideas and values you hold strongly already, especially things you’re mad about.

Carlson clearly hates the idea that people — especially women — might lecture him about “privilege,” and he knows that large portions of his audience do too. After all, his show is a nonstop festival of grievance and resentment about race and gender; that’s what his fans tune in for. Of late, he has been lamenting the supposed decline of masculinity in the United States; he even promoted a special on the “end of men” that suggested testicle tanning to restore manly vigor.

Similarly, Ingraham has been on a crusade against cannabis for years. Recently she blamed pot for the Uvalde massacre, and there was no doubt where she’d point the finger over Highland Park. Her viewers have heard it many times before, and are likely to nod and say, “Yep, those damn kids with their reefers, that’s what the problem is.”

What we actually know so far about the accused shooter is both highly specific and familiar in its basic story of an angry and suicidal young man. There won’t ever be a single factor that explains the psychology of every mass shooter. Some grew up in poverty while others didn’t. Some have diagnosable mental illnesses while others don’t. Some are motivated by a specific ideology of hate while others are driven by nebulous rage at the world.

But there’s one thing every last one of them has in common, without exception, and it isn’t pot smoking or being nagged by women. It’s that they were able, with little difficulty, to get their hands on a weapon that they could use to kill as many people as they wished.

If you’re committed to a vision of a world in which that will continue to be the reality, you can’t entertain the idea that there will be problematic consequences, in the form of innocent people being murdered, by the weapons you fetishize, at school and at church and at the mall and watching a Fourth of July parade.

So the blame must be cast elsewhere. And if you aren’t quite sure where, tune into Fox or turn on your radio, and the conservative media will be happy to point you in a helpful direction.