A lot of things about Wednesday’s shooting at a congressional Republican baseball practice felt reminiscent of the 2011 assassination attempt on Rep. Gabby Giffords that left six people dead including a congressional staffer. Like six years ago, the most prominent leaders of both parties issued a call for unity from both sides of the aisle, for example.
Most notably, though, there was a vocal, immediate, and familiar outcry about political rhetoric. Specifically, there were sometimes vague assertions from conservatives that overheated political language—and media coverage—was to blame for James T. Hodgkinson’s assault that sent Rep. Steve Scalise, one congressional staffer, and multiple others to the hospital with injuries. These calls mirrored complaints from liberals at the time of the Giffords assault that overheated political rhetoric might be to blame for Jared Lee Loughner’s attack.
Hodgkinson’s leanings—he posted liberally on social media about his hatred for Republicans and love of Bernie Sanders—are more obviously partisan than those of Loughner, a gold bug atheist. But now, even more than then, we should be wary of any attempt to use a tragic and horrible crime as a means for stifling legitimate political dissent.
Some of the discussion from conservative circles on Wednesday was a complete 180-degree turn from their impassioned defenses of political speech following the Giffords shooting. There were, in fact, already hints that the episode would be used to try to attack speech critical of President Donald Trump.
Former Speaker of the House and Trump ally Newt Gingrich said that the attack was part of a “pattern” of hostility toward the president on the left, comparing the shooting to Kathy Griffin’s dumb severed Trump head stunt, the controversial production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that depicts a Trumpian version of Caesar, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand swearing.
“Whether it’s a so-called comedian holding up the president’s head in blood, or it’s right here, in New York City, a play that shows the president being assassinated,” he said. “Or it’s Democratic leading national politicians who are so angry they have to use vulgarity because they can’t find any common language.”
Donald Trump Jr. also sent out a tweet seeming to compare this assault to the staging of Julius Caesar.
Politico pointed to other right-wing commentators who were explicitly comparing challenges of Trump—from those on the left and in the media—to this attempted murder:
Conservative radio host Michael Savage tweeted “I warned America the Dems constant drumbeat of hatred would lead to violence!”
Perhaps most disturbing was Rush Limbaugh’s description of Hodgkinson as the “personification” of the “deranged base” of the Democratic Party and his suggestion that the media, federal investigations, and Congressional investigations of Trump and his administration were somehow to blame for this violence:
You can’t continue to enrage people the way the left, and predominantly the media, has been doing. The Democrat Party and the left for years have been feeding this. And particularly since the election of Trump they have virtually assured their supporters that Trump is guilty, guilty of treason. And every congressional hearing is going to provide the proof. Every one. Sessions yesterday, Comey a couple of times, Sally Yates, you name it.
(Compare this with Limbaugh’s outrage after the Giffords shooting during which he accused Democrats of trying to clamp down on free speech and “profit out of murder.”)
It wasn’t just conservative media voices, either. Republican legislators and officials spoke throughout the day of “tamping down” rhetoric, without explicitly describing how and what rhetoric. The hints, though, were that the rhetoric that needed to be tamped down was criticism of Trump and his Republican Party, both from Democrats and from a media that the president has called the “enemy” of the American people.
“We’ve got to ratchet down the rhetoric that we’ve seen, not only on social media, but in the media in our 24-hour news cycle,” Rep. Rodney Davis told CNN. “These are the things that have to stop. This is a result of political rhetorical terrorism.”
Rep. Dave Brat also criticized Gillibrand for “using the F-Bomb in public” as he called for “ramp[ing] down the language.”
“It is OK to fight on policy. But the line should be no attacks on personalities going forward,” Brat told Fox News. “Just debate policy real hard, but ramp it down on the attacks on the personalities or the parties.
Brat said that this extended to attacking Trump personally, without specifying what exactly that meant.
“They’re free to attack his policy,” he said. “But they should not be attacking him personally, or as a party and raising the verbage.” (Trump was the one, if you’ll recall, who accused the last president of being a foreign and illegal usurper of the White House with his birther conspiracy theory.)
“I think the media is complicit if they keep inciting as opposed to informing,” Rep. Jack Bergman said on Fox News. “You need to make sure that you think twice about how your words and inflections and phrases might affect all the people who might see it.”
Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, meanwhile, suggested that rhetoric be toned down.
“The political environment has become too heated and it’s my hope that today’s tragedy will serve as a reminder to us all that first and foremost we’re united as Americans—it’s time to come together instead of tearing each other down,” she said.
Again, this echoes a debate that occurred immediately after the Giffords shooting. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik kicked off that discussion by saying that “vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country” can influence “unbalanced people” who might commit violence.
At the time, liberals also attacked Sarah Palin for having included Giffords’ district in the crosshairs of a “target map,” which some on the left equated to encouraging political violence. (Palin famously attacked these critics for “blood libel.”)
“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and any move to imply that asking questions of public officials or engaging in criticism of government is somehow suspicious or indicative of a violent individual is a damning indictment of everything America is supposed to stand for,” InfoWars wrote at the time.
Contrast that with the position of Alex Jones’ site on Wednesday that this latest attack was a case of “media-inspired terror attacks.”
"We have been warning for months that the mainstream media’s hysterical anti-Trump narrative and the left’s insistence that Trump is illegitimate will radicalize demented social justice warriors and prompt them to lash out with violence,” the site wrote. "It looks like that’s exactly what happened today. The blood is on their hands.”
With the empowerment of voices like Jones’ by the president and the Republican Party, it’s not unreasonable to wonder what the GOP means when it asks for toned down rhetoric. Should the media stop publishing stories about the congressional investigations into Trump, or the credibility gap between the president and his main accuser James Comey? Should those investigations be put to a halt, as Trump has suggested in deed with the Comey firing and reportedly in word with his reported desire for special counsel Robert Muelller to also lose his job?
That should be the biggest concern now out of any of these criticisms of the media and calls to “ratchet down” free speech.
As then Slate columnist Jack Shafer wrote at the time of the Giffords shooting: "Any call to cool 'inflammatory' speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power."
The man at the top of the government has publicly said that he wants that power, which makes those words even truer now than they were six years ago.