When Jared Lee Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords through the head and murdered six other people outright, it really was because he was "insane" and "deranged," as Bob Norman put it in his heartfelt open letter to Joyce Kaufman. Loughner's most coherent political position is an ill-defined anti-Semitism. He is not a Tea Partier. He is not a right-wing extremist, in any commonly understood sense of the phrase. He is, rather, a very strange boy with a head full of very bad chemicals.
That Loughner suffers from some kind of imbalance ought to come as a bigger surprise than it does. Schizophrenics, after all, do not appear on popular radio shows or cable news programs egging each other on to greater and more horrible acts of violence. The certifiably insane do not congregate in Town Hall meetings and promulgate an agenda at the expense of dialogue and reason. They do not call the noncrazy "treasonous" or compare the sane majority to Nazis. They do not organize. They do not moralize about the depravity of the mentally competent.
Which makes one wonder: Why did it take Jared Lee Loughner to put a bullet through the brain of Gabbie Giffords? Why didn't a Tea Partier do it first?
By their own loudly professed standards, large elements of the populist right believes Gabbie Giffords and those like her are worthy of death. Moderate Dems are, after all, Nazis -- and what does one do with Nazis? Are we really to believe that Allen West, Joyce Kaufman, et al., believe we were too hard on Adolf Hitler? That Dresden deserved clemency? Are we to believe that this meeting, recounted by former New Times writer Thomas Francis, was some kind of prank? Or else that the strong emotions evident on the accompanying video are something other than what they so clearly are -- expressions of a barely suppressed, violent impulse?
The recounted meeting took place last spring, at Fort Lauderdale City Hall, where Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was attempting to explain new health care legislation to her constituents. She was unable to do so. A small minority of those in attendance, who opposed what was then becoming known as "Obamacare," refused to allow the meeting to progress. They did so not through a sit-in or by blocking traffic on nearby Broward Boulevard but by shouting down the congresswoman and refusing to allow the citizens who elected her to have their say. Their goal, in other words, was to short-circuit the workings of democracy. "Nazi!" several were heard to yell. "Stalin!" said one, of Wasserman Schultz. Contradictory though those two charges may have been, they added up to a clear conclusion: Inoffensive little Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose most controversial political opinion to date has been that Terri Schiavo deserved a better death than could be allowed in a three-ring media circus, is a totalitarian.
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If that's truly the opinion of the populist right, they have every right to hold and espouse it. It is somewhat less honorable of them to merely pretend to feel that way in order to win elections. The Joyce Kaufmans of the world (and the Allen Wests, Rush Limbaughs, Sarah Palins, and Glenn Becks) can condemn Loughner's actions, but by doing so they admit to their own dishonesty. They have not, after all, suggested that the administration of Barack Obama and his allies are "vaguely reminiscent of socialists." They do not say he is "kind of like" a Nazi. They do not say he is "not quite hard enough" on terrorism. They say he is a socialist, that he is a Nazi, that he is a terrorist. He is, according to the wisdom of the rightist noisemakers, a Manchurian candidate, and Democrats are his treasonous, anti-American co-conspirators. If we are to take such rhetoric seriously, what option remains save armed rebellion? In what sense is Loughner anything but a patriot?
"If ballots don't work, bullets will," said Joyce Kaufman, meaning that strictly democratic processes may not be sufficient to enact the kind of governance she favors. Allen West advocated that patriots "take it to Lexington and Concord" -- "it" meaning his particular brand of conservative patriotic fervor. In recent days, as the chattering classes have struggled to make sense of the bloodbath in Tucson, such lines have been remembered, re-aired, and eyed with suspicion. Could these rhetorical flourishes have led to violence?
No. There is no indication that Loughner was ever even exposed to the far-right punditry. And even if he had been, it takes more than a rhetorical flourish to inspire someone to pick up a gun. Which is why the hyperbolic sound bite, which has drawn so much scorn in the wake of the Tucson massacre, is less a cause for concern than the ethos that spawns it. The right wing has no monopoly on hyperbole, but it has very nearly cornered the market on the weaponizing of difference, on the insistence that a political opponent is not a citizen with ideological diffeerences, but an enemy, immoral and un-American. Joyce Kaufman does this. Allen West does this. In Loughner's back yard, Jan Brewer does this. These individuals do not merely craft the occasional martial metaphor; they are in the business of articulating a whole, martial political philosophy. The populist right may not share Loughner's beliefs, but they certainly have endorsed his MO. If none of them have enacted it as yet, it is not because they lack the desire. It is only because they lack the balls. Or else they're liars. Time will tell.
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