The first thing to say about the attempted massacre of congressional Republicans on a baseball field in suburban Virginia is that the motivations of the shooter were unusual. By which I mean that, based on what we know, James Hodgkinson had surprisingly normal political beliefs. He hated Donald Trump, he liked Bernie Sanders, he wanted higher taxes on the wealthy. He was not a Communist or a paranoid knight on a shadowy crusade, but an ordinary Midwestern Democrat with far more rage but the same frustrations as many decent liberals.
Where modern assassinations are concerned, such normal partisan motivations are more unusual than you might think. John F. Kennedy was hated passionately by many Republicans in Dallas, but Lee Harvey Oswald’s beliefs were Marxist, not right-wing. Nationalist movements, not partisanship, inspired Sirhan Sirhan and the Puerto Ricans who almost killed Harry Truman. George Wallace was shot by a man trying to make “a statement of my manhood for the world to see.” One of Gerald Ford’s two would-be assassins was a member of the Manson cult, the other a sympathizer with the Symbionese Liberation Army. John Hinckley famously shot Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster.
And most recently – if a little less famously, because the media spent a long time assuming that he was Tea Party-inspired – Jared Lee Loughner shot Gabby Giffords because he was a lunatic obsessed with (among other things) the government’s control of grammar, and she had failed to answer his town hall question: “What is government if words have no meaning?”
So Hodgkinson’s seeming normalcy, his angry but relatively mainstream Democratic views, might be a warning sign for the future of our politics. The turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s generated segregationist terrorism on the right and a revolutionary underground on the left, but it did not produce much partisan terrorism, violence inspired simply by fear and hatred of the opposition party. Now, though, we hate each other simply for being Democrats and Republicans more than ever – and violence inspired simply by the polarization of the major parties would be a unique and novel threat.
The second thing to say is that a murderous attack on Republicans by an angry liberal should be an important reminder for our media-cultural establishment that societies can be pulled apart from the left as easily as from the right. Of course, network anchors and magazine editors and editorial boards know this on an intellectual level. But because our centrist elites are actually center-left there is a constant, involuntary tug toward emphasizing what’s wrong on the right-wing side of the spectrum and excusing what’s wrong on the other.
There’s a great deal wrong on the right in the age of Donald Trump, and the scrutiny directed rightward is not at all misplaced. But as Trump proves more hapless than dangerous – or only dangerous because he’s hapless – the derangement that he inspires or amplifies among his critics also matters. And if America slides toward a rendezvous with 1968, the tendency of the establishment to only see one side’s dangers – to treat Marine Le Pen as uniquely terrifying but Jeremy Corbyn as merely dotty, to “remember” that Loughner was a Palin fan or that right-wing hate killed JFK – will make things more dangerous overall.
Part of what went wrong in America in the later ‘60s was that the liberal establishment carried water for, protected or excused its far-left children’s rage. Part of what could go wrong today is evident in the way that violence in the left-wing core, the university campus, gets met with excuse-making, appeasement and halfhearted punishment from liberal authorities. The House whip bleeding on a baseball field is a reminder that brighter lines against lesser acts of violence serve the entire culture well.
But the third thing to say is that the worst of what could go wrong hasn’t yet. James Hodgkinson was not part of a network of terrorists, a literal Democratic underground. No prominent politician justified his act; instead both parties prayed together before a cheering D.C. crowd. The Trump era is crazy, but not as crazy as I feared: The Antifa types and Proud Boys are more performative than revolutionary, college campuses are hothouses but not actually in flames, the internet is deranging us but perhaps also encouraging us to express derangement with tweets rather than bullets.
So we have the space to keep our bearings – which includes remembering that hot political rhetoric is a normal part of high-stakes debate, that lies are wicked but insults are very small-d democratic, that comparing self-aggrandizing presidents to Caesars is as American as apple pie, and that martial metaphors are not incitement. Only incitement is incitement.
Police what you say for lies, for slander, for stupidity, for simple vileness. Don’t be Sean Hannity; don’t be Kathy Griffin. Abjure the sword, the gun, the bomb.
But don’t parse your every word for what a maniac might make of it. This is a free country, and still, thank God, a mostly peaceful one. Say what you believe.