Analysis

Trump's 'Witch-hunt' Tweets Shatter Show of Unity After Scalise Shooting

Right-wing complaints against liberal incitement sound ludicrous when one remembers their own hate mongering against Barack Obama

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 14, 2017 after House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot in nearby Alexandria, Virginia
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

In the first hours after the shooting in Alexandria in which Republican Whip Stephen Scalise and four others were wounded, most of America showed admirable unity. Donald Trump gave a measured and worthy response in his address to the nation, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised her rival, House Speaker Paul Ryan. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle reassured each other that despite their differences, they are all worthy patriotic Americans.

The idyll was shattered, of course, by Trump himself. Angered by Wednesday’s report in the Washington Post that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was investigating him for possible obstruction of justice, Trump let loose with a barrage of tweets alleging fake news and “the single greatest witch hunt in American history”, no less.  “They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice”, Trump wrote, though it wasn’t really clear who “they” was. If ‘they” includes Mueller, then the earlier reports about Trump’s intention to sack the former FBI Director may soon turn out to be true, in which case today’s discord will be paradise compared to the storm that would break out when it actually happens.

Trump’s swift return to his usual form may have taken some wind out of right-wing efforts to exploit James Hodgkinson’s shooting spree in Virginia in order to score points against their liberal opponents. Right-wing media, led by Fox News and including several GOP Congressmen, tried to pin the blame for the shooting on the alleged demonization of Trump by liberals and their media. Newt Gingrich said that there is an atmosphere where “it’s OK to consider assassinating Trump.” Describing Hodgkinson as a “foot soldier” of the left, columnist Ann Coulter alleged that the Scalise shooting proved that “The media are orchestrating a bloodless coup, but they're perfectly content to have their low-IQ shock troops pursue a bloody coup.” Others latched on to the widely condemned video of comic Kathy Griffin holding Trump’s severed head or to the Public Theater’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar dressed up as Trump in order to indict the left, though it’s doubtful, of course, if Hodgkinson had ever heard of either.

To liberal ears, the complaints about leftist incitement were a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Some of the people who had railed against Barack Obama, including Birther-champion Trump himself, were now complaining about an atmosphere of hate towards Trump. They seem to have forgotten that Trump had not been targeted personally by Hodgkinson, while Obama had been the target of several assassination plots which were erased from memory simply because they were unsuccessful. These included actual shots fired at the White House by an assailant who saw Obama as the anti-Christ, a plot by an army terrorist group that had already acquired bombs and ammunition, and the New York State gang of right-wing extremists who made the mistake of trying to enlist a local Jewish synagogue in their plot to use a “death ray” to destroy enemies of the United States and Israel — Obama apparently qualifies as both — but were turned over to the police instead.

On the other hand, American liberals can’t very well deny the pervasive atmosphere of acute hostility towards Trump in politics, the media and liberal intelligentsia. Unless Hodgkinson is proven to have suffered from mental illnesses, a diagnosis that could be hard to form posthumously, any attempt to deny a link between this atmosphere and the shooting would force a review of claims that right-wing incitement was one of the reasons for Jared Loughner’s attack on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, in which six people were killed, or the allegation that Trump’s crude incitement during the election campaign contributed to a significant uptick in hate crimes against blacks, Muslims and Jews. The Israeli left, for that matter, would have to reconsider its long held belief that hysterical right-wing incitement spurred Yigal Amir to murder Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Unlike the situation in Israel, however, the American right wing does not have a complete monopoly on political violence. From the anarchists of the late 19th and 20th centuries, who carried out terrorist bombings, assassinated President William McKinley in 1901 and almost killed Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, through the Weathermen who bombed buildings but not people in the 1960’s and 1970’s to the eco-terrorists and animal-rights radicals who often cross legal lines, the radical fringe of the American left has often resorted to violence.

Bernie Sanders, in any case, was quick to disown Hodgkinson, who is said to have volunteered in his campaign during the last elections. Hillary Clinton supporters said at the time that some fans of Sanders and Trump resemble each other, being white, disgruntled and prone to intolerance and violence. Judging by his profile, Hodgkinson, who hails from an Illinois county that voted for Trump, might have been cast just as easily as a right-wing Republican who comes to Washington and lives in a van, awaiting an opportunity to open fire on liberals.

It was also said at the time that there was a significant amount of Sanders voters who would prefer the anti-establishment, drain-the-swamp Trump to the corrupt, slave of Wall Street Clinton. Sanders supporters who switched sides, even though they are hard to find today, played a role in efforts to explain how Trump achieved his astonishing victory in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In recent weeks, however, an alternative explanation, one that involves Russian hackers and their infiltration of voting machines and software, is starting to gain traction. If it develops into a convincing suspicion that Trump usurped the Presidency with the help of his Russian allies, then all bets are off, of course, and all hell will probably break loose.