The Echo Chamber of Extremism

We’ve been playing a dangerous game in America. The more the rhetoric is ratcheted up, the more we increase the risk of an unhinged soul being darkly inspired to take action.

These are the wages of hate: bullets and blood on a dusty baseball diamond.

A deranged gunman, hopped up on hyperpartisanship, targeted Republican congressmen and staffers at an early-morning practice for a charity ballgame.

This time, the killer came from the left. James T. Hodgkinson was a gun nut and hardcore Bernie Sanders supporter who followed Facebook pages with titles like “Terminate the Republican Party.” He apparently took that toxic talk both seriously and literally.

The shock resonated through the halls of Congress as well as the country. Political violence is rare in America. But violent political rhetoric has become as common as gunshots in our city streets. Suddenly, it all came home to the House and no party could claim to be immune from extremism.

What we need is a reset, to refocus on the common danger this kind of rhetoric can create.

Politics doesn’t take place in a vacuum. We need to have vigorous debates in our democracy, but they don’t need to be cloaked in language about demonizing people you disagree with to rally the troops. That’s not populism. It’s poison. And it’s naïve to think it won’t spill over into the body politic.

During the Obama years, hating the president became a popular pastime on the far right—from the Tea Party to the Birthers to the Trump campaign—with conspiracy theories and talk of Second Amendment solutions excused by a twisted vision of patriotism.

That political success has inspired some left-wing imitators, channeling opposition anger. Their ranks are comparatively anemic in Congress to date, but it’s proliferated in darker corners online. Their underlying argument seems to echo what I heard when I was reporting my book Wingnuts in the opening months of the Obama administration. When I saw a someone at a rally holding a sign comparing Obama to Hitler, I’d ask them what they were trying to say. Invariably, I’d hear something like this: “They did it first… They compared Bush to Hitler and nobody complained. So I figured it was fair game.” It’s just more evidence that politics follows the lines of physics: Every action creates an equal and opposite reaction.

We’ve been playing a dangerous game in America. The more the rhetoric is ratcheted up, defining political opponents as personal enemies, the more we increase the risk of an unhinged soul being darkly inspired to take action. That is what happened on Wednesday morning in Alexandria.

In the wake of a mass shooting—take the 2015 attack on a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs that killed three people and injured nine, for example—we’ve often been told not to politicize the tragedy by conservative groups.

Nonetheless, there were predictable attempts to politicize this attack from conservatives like Newt Gingrich and from the alt-right crowd, casting the shooter as somehow representative of Bernie Sanders or Democrats in an attempt to muddy the record of hate-fueled rhetoric in the past and claim moral equivalence if not moral superiority. Guilt by association is the glue of politics in 2017.

But it should be noted that Bernie Sanders took to the floor of the Senate to condemn the attack as soon as the news came out, while congressional Democrats gathered in prayer for their fallen conservative colleagues.

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Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged that moment in a pitch-perfect speech on the floor of the House, saying “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us… We feel so deeply about the things we fight for and believe in. At times, our emotions can get the best of us. We are all imperfect. But we do not shed our humanity when we enter this chamber. For all the noise and fury, we are a family.”

Even President Trump sounded the right note in his scripted comments to the nation: “We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together towards a common good.”

With Majority Whip Steve Scalise still in critical condition along with other victims, the congressional baseball game is scheduled to go on Thursday night. It’s an appropriate symbol of resilience and refusal to be intimidated by hate and fear and violence. But rather than pitting Republicans and Democrats against each other at a time of toxic team-ism, perhaps—as Daily Beast contributor Dave Maney suggested in a tweet—the teams should be realigned to reflect East versus West rather than Republicans versus Democrats. It would be a small way to send the much-needed message that we are all ultimately on the same team as Americans.