Can We Tone Down the Political Rhetoric?

January 9th, 2011 at 11:03 am David Frum | 281 Comments |

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Conservatives have been quick to repudiate – to brand as offensive and disgusting – any suggestion that the Tucson shooting was somehow inspired by the extreme anti-Obama political rhetoric of the past 2 years.

In this, conservatives have the facts on their side. By all reports, the Tucson shooter was a very mentally disturbed person. Even if Jared Lee Loughner was aware that Sarah Palin’s PAC had posted a gun sight next to Congresswoman Gifford’s name, that awareness cannot be translated into a motivation. It makes no sense to talk of the “motive” of someone who is fundamentally irrational.

That point should be acknowledged, accepted, and internalized.

Yet as we acknowledge that extremist rhetoric did not incite this crime, it should also be acknowledged that the rhetoric has been extreme, and potentially dangerously so.  I wrote in April 2009:

A man bearing a sidearm appears outside President Obama’s Aug. 11 town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., under a sign proclaiming, “It is time to water the tree of liberty.”

That phrase of course references a famous statement of Thomas Jefferson’s, from a 1787 letter: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.”

Earlier that same day, another man is arrested inside the school building in which the president will speak. Police found a loaded handgun in his parked car.

At an event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last week, police were called after one attendee dropped a gun.

Nobody has been hurt so far. We can all hope that nobody will be. But firearms and politics never mix well. They mix especially badly with a third ingredient: the increasingly angry tone of incitement being heard from right-of-center broadcasters.

The Nazi comparisons from Rush Limbaugh; broadcaster Mark Levin asserting that President Obama is “literally at war with the American people”; former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claiming that the president was planning “death panels” to extirpate the aged and disabled; the charges that the president is a fascist, a socialist, a Marxist, an illegitimate Kenyan fraud, that he “harbors a deep resentment of America,” that he feels a “deep-seated hatred of white people,” that his government is preparing concentration camps, that it is operating snitch lines, that it is planning to wipe away American liberties”: All this hysterical and provocative talk invites, incites, and prepares a prefabricated justification for violence.

Again: this talk did not cause this crime. But this crime should summon us to some reflection on this talk. Better: This crime should summon us to a quiet collective resolution to cease this kind of talk and to cease to indulge those who engage in it.

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281 Comments so far ↓

  • jakester

    SD Springy
    after such a tragedy like this, you are just spinning the wheels and digging the car in deeper with you pathos about how the “teabagger” label wounded your psyche. For example, if some obvious leftist, with Obama posters and Che t-shirt, went on a murderous shooting rampage at a JD Hayworth rally, then your “see you do it too” remark& link might have some validity now. But that didn’t happen lately so show a little thoughtfulness and give me reason to re-evaluate my low opinion of teabaggers, talk radio robots and Palindrones in general.

  • rubbernecker

    (abk#: Well, that’s a first. I can’t recall ever being accused of civility. I appreciate the sentiment!)

    springy, I get that that ad was a political ad. The ad explicitly contends that Hayworth was the “target” of a Justice Department investigation, and the crosshairs are an obvious graphic complement to the voiceover. It simply doesn’t rank with Palin’s belligerence and lack of scruple ever since her RNC speech, or with the pack of demagogues who have turned American political discourse into Chernobyl.

  • anniemargret

    abk: geez. You’re giving me a headache.

    I went back to re-read my comment about words hurting others at 8:57PM and there was nothing about “warped choice about a sexual act.”

    Wah? You must be confusing me with someone else. All I said was words hurt. Please re-read my comment and correct. Thank you.

    Of course words hurt! c’mon – you’re playing silly games now. I am stating the obvious, that gun-imagery and calling the President a near-terrorist can cause dangerous situations to occur. Won’t apologize for that.

    Have a nice night…. Peace. We need more of it.

  • balconesfault

    DSP: The Left’s goal is to link dissent from the Obama agenda to a mass murderer.

    And I thought all along that the Left’s goal is to link dissent from the Obama agenda to racism.

    How about this … dissent that characturizes Obama as some guy sitting on the front porch of the White House eating watermelons, or that insists that Obama is a White Hater … is racism.

    Dissent that talks about Obama bringing the Khmer Rouge to America, or how the blood of patriots must be spilled via 2nd Amendment Remedies to fight socialist cum Kommunist takeover of the government … is incitement to murder.

  • sdspringy

    Again Jake, you currently have no proof or documentation or statements that Loughner was active in any political process.

    You are currently trying to blame a shooting on political discourse and have no actual evidence other than your own political slant.

    Palin’s nor Mitchell’s political ads are not to blame for a mentally deranged individual following through on his delusions. Both used crosshairs and both had nothing to do with this act of violence.

    And Balcon how about a Democrat House representative claiming Republicans want Americans to “die quickly”. Remember Crayson.

    No single political party is above reproach concerning inflamatory language. There is way too much available from the web to allow that argument to stand anywhere.

  • balconesfault

    And Balcon how about a Democrat House representative claiming Republicans want Americans to “die quickly”. Remember Crayson.

    Actually, his first claim was that Republicans wanted people to not get sick. “Die quickly” was simply the Republican fallback Healthcare Plan for people without insurance when they did get sick.

    All in all a pretty accurate characterization, particularly in light of what’s happening in Arizona right now for transplant candidates who don’t have insurance.

  • pnumi2


    “And in terms of creating an enviorment of hate then actually using ridicule, slurs, and demeaning language goes alot further than calling someone a socialist or a Kenyan.”

    ‘Socialist’ and “Kenyan” not all inflamatory when speaking of the President and the leader of his party. Drink some vinegar and tell everyone how good it is. Justify everything you do and say, sdspringy.

    You’re as believable as Bernie Madoff.

  • sdspringy

    So Pnumi it is more inflamatory to call the President a socialist than to ridicule, belittle, and use demeaning slurs when referring to your political oppostion.

    So when Bush was being called an Nazi you were declaring that terrible and admonishing people to stop.

    You are as believable as liberal teabagger.

  • jakester

    no doubt the shooter is a loner crackpot who was not some rank and file follower of any particular group. The point is that extreme political hate rhetoric, with violent overtones, may push these unstable types over the edge, as well as heavy marijuana abuse etc. I may also add that our esteemed entertainment media’s celebration of violence, gore, mass murder and sadism, replete with at least 2 battalion sized gun fire fights a movie, has a lot of negative impact on these unstable types too.

  • sdspringy

    I would agree Jakester

  • pnumi2


    Nobody I know ever called Bush a Nazi in my hearing. I guess that’s my fault by your reasoning.

    Do you think I spent my days running hither and yon with a megaphone to my ear seeking out people on the left like you who looked like they might say something objectional about Bush’s War? Was it verboten not love Bush and his hunt for WMDs? Is it even all right to say Bush’s war to you or will I get demerits for it?

    I don’t know who died and made you arbiter of right and wrong in America in the 21st century, but if you’ve got half a brain in your head why don’t you pick up that that mob and finish mopping the floor.

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  • midcon

    The comments here are just simply upping the ante – someone bets an Obama socialist, another raises a Bush Nazi, which is then countered by a 2nd Ammendment remedy, with a corresponding raise of bring a gun to a knife fight from the other side.

    Is there point? I thought the point was that this language not only had no class or civility but was probably inflammatory and influential in causing at some folks in this country to act out the anger through unacceptable means.

    Apparently from the responses, it is simply to play poker with unlimited raises, no long arguing about whether the binary right or left is doing it but the degree to which each side is doing it. Pretty soon you will resort to another way of parsing the same rhetoric, such as “well we only used dead tyrants, so that doesn’t count”

    It doesn’t matter who does it. Both the binary left and binary right do it. Isn’t the point that it should stop? Haven’t we all had enough of this? Christina had an interest in government. She died because of that interest and because of the language being used in the political arena. She’s been dead for 2 days. Doesn’t it matter anymore?

  • me

    I knew as soon as this happened it would be used to stop all criticism of Obama:

  • Gus

    “I knew as soon as this happened it would be used to stop all criticism of Obama:”

    What? Someone is suggesting that the political rhetoric should be toned down=we must stop all criticism of Obama? There’s a leap.

  • TerryF98

    Good grief the victim-hood here on the right is intense.

    Did we hurt your fee fee’s a little then. Anyone who puts forward the birther argument, and you know who you are has no right to believe that his feelings have been hurt.

    Wear you label with pride, you have earned it by espousing paranoid delusion for months.

  • narcissa

    Well said, Mr. Frum. Well said.

  • trafamadore

    In contrast to Frum note here, which is conciliatory, it looks like Krugman hit the nail on head (in the Times). I especially agree with his “the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled,” BUT “that doesn’t mean his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.”

    In a his own artile, John Hayward says, “Actually, yes, that’s exactly what it does mean.” But Hayward omits Krugman’s argument, that as the national climate moves toward inciting violence, these people are _more_ prone to acting out their agenda. Why did he leave this out? I guess although it makes sense, Krugman is a “lunatic” as we find out in the very first sentence of Haywards article, so I guess Krugman cannot have a valid argument.

    Krugman’s article was all about the political climate of the right and its attacks on people; with the Hayward article as a wonderful counterpoint example, Krugman cant help but make sense. Sorry.

  • jquintana

    If any of you are open-minded enough to read Michelle Malkin’s lead story on her website, you might just learn something…it’s called “The Progressive “Climate of Hate:” An Illustrated Primer, 2000-2010″:

  • trafamadore


    Open minded? To to even suggest that the tone of the left and the right are even remotely similar, one must not have a radio or TV.

    And as for Malkin, of all people, to document the left’s excesses is pretty funny. I forget the details, but isnt she the one now hiding out in CO because of one of her little stunts on the east coast backfired after she published the addresses of her “enemies”?

    Think about it; the left has lots of Frums, but who on the left is Palin? Malkin? Limball? Beck? etc etc.

  • Joe In NH

    I am tired of hearing how the left does it too. Yes -the left does it too and all you have to do is look at MSM outlets like the Socialist Workers Party paper and other notable publications just as large. With the possible exception of MSNBC (and is it big enough to be considered part of the MAINstream media?)you never had commentators in the so called lamestream media spew forth the hatred directed to Bush by wingnuts on the far left. On the right you have Bachmann talking of unamerican members of Congress. Savage is talking of Obama setting up a private police force. Beck talks of possible concentration camps. And I have only scratched the surface regarding the hate in the right wing media.

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  • William Boulet

    You’re missing the point. If I create an atmosphere that will cause an insane person to commit a crime, whether or not I intended for the crime to be committed, and whether or not the ‘criminal’ actually knew why he was committing the crime, I may still be responsible. Being insane doesn’t mean you’re immune to the environment around you, and the more poisonous that environment, the more you may be driven to act.

    William Boulet

  • JimBob

    People like ktward don’t live in reality. Delusional all the way.

  • ktward

    Given the particular bent of JimBob’s mindset–long reflected by his FF comments–I’m actually honored that he chose to single me out on this mega-thread. No joke.

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  • mickster99

    But it’s the free market in action. People buy this (via ad revenue generated) and love it. It’s on 24/7. You can listen to it on the radio/cable tv virtually any time you want. It satisfies a need. Some people seem to crave to be in a constant state of paranoia and hysteria and pay good money to consume it. Geez, Dave, let the free market take care of this. As longs there’s consumers needing it there will purveyors. And it’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop anyway. Glenn Beck is in the same business as Hollywood types that make movies like “Saw” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” sort of. Please I want to be scared and afraid. Only those in the movie theater know its not real. Glenn Beck’s audience, not so much if at all.

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