After Giffords Shooting, Tea Party Under Siege
In the wake of the Arizona shooting, Tea Party leaders are rejecting critics who say their anti-government rhetoric is to blame. Benjamin Sarlin talks to conservative activists about their frustrating task.
• Feds have filed five criminal charges against Jared Lee Loughner, 22, the alleged shooter behind the attack. The counts include one assassination attempt, two counts of murder, and two counts of attempted murder. • In the wake of the attacks, two House members tell Politico they’ll be carrying weapons with them when they return to their home districts. • The House of Representatives has postponed all legislative activity, included a planned repeal of health-care reform.
Under siege from politicians, activists, and commentators' attacks on their members' rhetoric, Tea Party and conservative activists now face the frustrating task of defending their movement even as they grieve with the rest of the nation.
Almost immediately after news broke of the Arizona shooting, which claimed six lives and left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for survival, liberal commenters on Twitter began circulating links to a campaign map from Sarah Palin's Facebook page featuring crosshairs over Giffords' district. A spokeswoman for Palin, Rebecca Mansour, told talk-radio host Tammy Bruce on Saturday that the map had nothing to do with violence and it has since been removed from Palin's website. In the wake of the shooting, Giffords' father identified "the whole Tea Party" as enemies of her daughter and Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik warned that Arizona has become a "Mecca for prejudice and bigotry" and that anti-government "vitriol" may have played a role in the attack. A number of Democratic lawmakers called on politicians to tone down their rhetoric in response to the tragedy, including civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who cited an "atmosphere and climate that makes it almost impossible for us as Americans to reason together."
For Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, it's been a trying 24 hours. Audibly shaken over the phone, she said her first instinct throughout has been to keep the victims in her thoughts and prayers, saying that as a mother of 7-year-old twins she was particularly horrified by the death of a 9-year-old girl, Christina Tayloro Green.
"It really just hits close to home," she said. "I was with my daughter painting pottery [when the shooting occurred] and started getting text messages and phone calls."
Martin told The Daily Beast that while she sent a sympathetic email to the local Tea Party chapter for Tucson, she has not been working with state and local Tea Party groups to coordinate any kind of response to the incident. She said it was "unfortunate" to see Palin and other political figures taking heat over the tragedy.
"From what I can tell now, it's the actions of someone who was clearly disturbed and has some very serious mental problems," she said. "The things I've said are 'Call your representatives, make signs, stand outside of offices, vote.' Those are not actions encouraging or inciting violence."
The Pima County Tea Party, which operates in Tucson, condemned the attack but also cautioned against political exploitation.
• Terry Greene Sterling: Hatred Ravages AZ Over Immigration• Gabrielle Giffords: Tea Party Target"This is a time for all Americans to come together and renounce violence and those who try to use today’s tragic events as a way to further divide us are irresponsible," the group said in a statement. Many conservatives online and several in interviews cited screen grabs indicating an individual Daily Kos diarist used a bullseye over Blue Dog Democrats as evidence that the right was not unique in their use of military terms in campaigns. Kos has suggested on Twitter the comparison is unfair, given it was posted by one anonymous user and not one of the most prominent leaders of the GOP.
Andrew Ian Dodge, Tea Party Patriots coordinator for Maine, said that conservative activists have done an admirable job of keeping their tone "somber and reflective" in the wake of the attack, but that many had concerns about fighting back against the left-wing narrative.
"I think there was shock at first, but then anger later in the day watching television and seeing State Sen. Linda Lopez saying this was the Tea Party's fault," he said. "There's been some back and forth, with some saying we need to get out in front of this because we're getting blamed. But he wasn't a Tea Party member—there’s a video of him burning a frigging flag for Christ's sake!"
Josh Trevino, a co-founder of Red State and a partner at consulting firm Rogue Strategic Services, said he had grown used to seeing conservatives under fire after similar incidents in the past, citing Mayor Michael Bloomberg's speculation after an attempted Times Square bombing that the terrorist might have been motivated by the passage of health-care reform.
"It's happened before, it will happen again." he said. He added that he believed such claims were in part a coordinated political attack.
"There's a reason Democrats and the left do what they do in trying to blame Tea Parties and the right—they're out of ammo, so to speak. They were fairly comprehensively defeated in November," he said. "I wouldn't say it's a strategic reaction, but it's certainly a tactical reaction to these disadvantages."
Red State co-founder Erick Erickson also blasted the media Sunday for raising questions about conservative rhetoric and cited conservatives' advantageous political position as evidence against an ideological motive from the right. In an email to supporters, he wrote that "the tea party movement won in November. Winners don’t go on shooting sprees."
A YouTube apparently posted by Loughner cited several common causes in far-right circles, including a gold standard for currency and a rejection of "treasonous" laws. Many conservatives highlighted tweets from one alleged former classmate of Loughner identifying him as "quite liberal" in the past and his references to Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto on his MySpace page as evidence of his disconnect from any coherent conservative ideology.
While those interviewed uniformly said they believed the shooter's chief motivation likely sprung from mental illness and possible substance abuse, Tea Party Nation Founder Judson Phillips actively blamed the left for the attack. "The shooter was a liberal lunatic. Emphasis on both words," he wrote in an email to members.
Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.