Once the shock of the Giffords assassination attempt had worn off, the next-most-amazing thing we beheld was the unembarrassed gloating with which the American Left, in its many forms, pointed a pompous and hysterical finger at “the Tea Party” or “the Right” or “talk-show hosts” (although the accusers clearly don’t have Terry Gross in mind). Less than 24 hours after the shooting that nearly killed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, we had heard from The New Yorker’s George Packer, the New York Times’s Paul Krugman, and the sheriff of Pima County, all solemnly intoning their belief that Jared Loughner had been in some way led to his crime by a lethal cabal of Rupert Murdoch, Sarah Palin, and the Republican party. Even Patricia Maisch, one of the three citizens who subdued Loughner, could not end her interview with Shepard Smith on Fox News without confidently — and gratuitously — blaming the whole incident on “extreme right-wing reporters.”
This collective j’accuse has now become a story of its own, and largely because, after the passage of another 24 hours, nothing at all had emerged from the mass of data on Jared Loughner that linked the assassin with tea parties or talk shows of any persuasion. Nor did Gabby Giffords turn out to be a particularly likely target if the shooter really were some incoherent brown-shirted dupe of Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, or Rush Limbaugh. (Beck’s only public comment on Giffords had been to praise her criticism of the present immigration mess). It was, instead, the Daily Kos that had to airbrush from its website a complaint that Giffords had let down the Democratic side in Congress and could be considered “dead” to the interests of the Left (metaphorically dead, I presume, but bloody metaphors are forgiven when uttered by the Left).
In effect, the denouncers of “hate” had been roaring ahead entirely on hate fuel of their own. By the time we had passed the 48-hour mark, the absence of any connections between Loughner and any co-dependents on the Right hung the accusers in midair, spinning their wheels like Wile E. Coyote. That, however, only signaled a shift from blaming conservatives to blaming a “climate” of opinion in which homicidal rampages are encouraged to happen spontaneously, like oily rags self-combusting. This “climate” turns out to have only one kind of weather, formed solely by the updraft of, as Packer phrased it, “conservative leaders, activists, and media figures” who “have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents.”
The fundamental problem with this ornate political prurience is that assassination in American history has pretty regularly been the blessèd resort of the Left. Start with Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who murdered the very conservative William McKinley; turn next to Harry Orchard, the union bomber who blew up Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905; turn again to Lee Harvey Oswald, the Marxist who murdered JFK (but whom Oliver Stone tried mightily to redefine as a clandestine conservative); add in Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to attack Gerald Ford in 1975 on behalf of “clean air, healthy water, and respect for creatures and creation,” and Sara Jane Moore, who fired a .38 revolver at Ford a few weeks after Fromme’s abortive attack because the “government had declared war on the left”; and then top it off with John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan who claimed Lee Harvey Oswald as his role model, and you begin to get some sense of how closely the profile of the gun-toting lunatic assassin suits the Left’s enragés. When the Left talks about violence from the Right, the only name it seems able to come up with is that of Timothy McVeigh.
I also seem to remember that the “climate” of nastiness that is supposed to have fostered the Giffords assassination attempt did not spring from the head of the Tea Party. It began long, long ago, sometime between Lyndon Johnson’s anti-Goldwater atom-bomb ads and the election of Richard Nixon, and then accelerated with the election of Ronald Reagan (whom Sam Donaldson badgered at press conferences in a manner unthought-of in the previous history of the Washington press corps). I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania when Reagan was gunned down, and I awoke the next day to find an op-ed column in The Daily Pennsylvanian, written by one Dom Manno, a DP staffer, gloating over the shooting and regretting only that the president had survived. Mr. Manno had to be taken in hand by the Secret Service for a brief lesson about the consequences of encouraging assassins, but the lesson Manno’s column taught me was about the serene sense of immunity he had felt in wishing a conservative president dead. The Left, in other words, never notices when it turns politics or journalism into a free-fire zone. It is only when one of its own gets hit in the process that the nastiness becomes unspeakable — but it is still never the Left’s fault for having manufactured the ammunition in the first place.
If we are living now in a time of unprecedented political “vitriol” — and I believe we are, and very much to the detriment of democracy itself — it is a brand of vitriol that was sprayed with relentless generosity on George W. Bush, who was caricatured by The Nation, day by day during his presidency, as a morphed version of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. And it was only yesterday that the Left’s president referred to Republicans as “enemies,” while the Speaker of the Left snarled at her critics as Nazis with swastikas.
Still, the rule of the Left is that nothing committed by the Left is a sin, whether it’s poisoning the political “climate” for the last forty years, or accusing “the Tea Party” and “the Right” of poisoning it when they strike back in kind. This is hypocrisy on a grand-mal scale. But what blinds the Left to this hypocrisy is the fundamental operating conviction of the Left that all governments are really about power, and that conservatives’ talk of liberty is either a dimwitted relic of the 18th century or else a camouflage for other brands of power; hence, when the Left turns on the acid hose, it is merely doing what the pursuit of power has shown can and must be done on behalf of progressive policies. Hypocrisy occurs only when conservatives try to pick up the hose themselves, since that betrays the Unbearable Secret of the Right, that conservatives are really interested only in power, too.
When conservatives speak of liberty, what they should be speaking of is restraint — the self-restraint of the virtuous republican citizen who, like Washington, turns his back on the blandishments of power; the prudential restraint that spoke of ending a civil war with malice toward none and charity for all; the structural restraint of a Constitution that compels the components of government to occupy themselves with each other so that ordinary citizens may live a life unmolested by the powerful. That sense of restraint has not always governed conservative rhetoric. We are fooling ourselves if we think that Barack Obama was entirely wrong when he spoke of a landscape pockmarked with Miniver Cheevys, drunk on rage or race or guns, dreaming dreams of violent shortcuts to celebrity or power. His mistake has been to imagine that these exist only on the right. Now, when the overreach of the Krugmans and the Packers has become coldly clear, is a good time for conservatives to remind themselves of the interdependence of liberty and restraint. The Right, at least, has a better principle at its core.
— Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce III professor of the Civil War era, director of Civil War Era Studies, and associate director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.