The Washington Post has suddenly forgotten how the 'climate of hate' works

Today’s shooting of Republicans by a man with a long history of anti-Republican social media postings has created a cottage industry of Republicans blame Democrats pieces on the left.

Politico’s entry focused on quotes by Alex Jones and Info Wars and noted that Breitbart’s take was “more careful.” In ThinkProgress’ version of the same piece, the site criticized Rep. Chris Collins for saying this about anti-Trump rhetoric, “Really, then, you know, some people react to things like that. They get angry as well. And then you fuel the fires.” Salon’s take highlighted tweets by Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr. Vox’s entry in this song-cycle of right-wing denunciation uses many of the same quotes but does contain this one intriguing paragraph:

When Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in the head by anti-government conspiracy theorist Jared Loughner in 2011, people on the left were making mirror-opposite complaints about the right’s “climate of hate.” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman blasted conservative pundits such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly for making violent jokes — sometimes referencing gun violence — about the left.

That’s a reference to Krugman’s 2011 “Climate of Hate” article in which Krugman wrote, “It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.”

Which brings me to the Washington Post, where Dave Weigel seems to have suddenly forgotten how the “climate of hate” argument works. Weigel argues that a statement Sanders made recently (“You should be angry. Take your anger out on the right people.”) has been taken out of context as a call to violence.

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.”

Weigel is correct. Sanders has not, so far as I’m aware, ever called for people to get violent. But that’s not necessary to invoke the “climate of hate.” Blaming a string of violent events on a map with targets on it (as Sanders seems to do in this post-Tucson fundraising pitch) is exactly like blaming Bernie Sanders for today’s shooting on the grounds that he is always talking about the need for a revolution. In both cases, normal people understand that rhetoric is not a license to kill. But the “climate of hate” argument says we have to also be aware of the fringe that is listening and which might be incited to real violence by such language. Weigel continues:

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.

Weigel is missing the point, I think intentionally. Sarah Palin never called for “actual violence” either. Another example cited by Krugman in 2011 was Rep. Michele Bachmann saying constituents should be “armed and dangerous.” Only Bachmann was talking about being armed with information about an energy bill, not making a call to actual violence. Weigel continues:

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.

These are exactly the same sort of links many on the left, not just Paul Krugman, made in 2011. Yes, we understand that Kathy Griffin is a comedian. We understand it wasn’t a call to real violence. Neither was the stuff cited by the left in 2011. It was all political rhetoric designed to rev up supporters, exactly the sort of thing Bernie Sanders was doing when he said “Take your anger out on the right people.”

If Sanders had said, ‘Take out your anger on the right targets’ it would be very close to a rhetorical version of Sarah Palin’s target map in both meaning and intent. All of us, right and left understand this. The problem is that, after Tucson, the left suddenly connected this rhetoric to real violence, absent any evidence. And now that there is violence which might actually have some connection to political rhetoric, folks like Dave Weigel have suddenly forgotten how the climate of hate argument works.

If you want to say that the right is wrong to connect the shooting to left-wing rhetoric, fine. I’m all for blaming the shooter. But you can’t denounce the right for making the “climate of hate” argument without first admitting the left was wrong to make the same sort of argument back then when there was a chance for them to blame it on the right.