Whatever the motive of the shooter at a congressional baseball practice, some Republicans say that in the era of President Donald Trump, they’re being threatened like never before.
They point to a virulent backlash against Trump that they say goes beyond the bounds of moderate political dissent and — subtly or not — encourages violence.
“I’ve been saying, ‘What is it going to take for this to get some visibility,’” said Charlie Kirk, a young conservative activist. “And now here we are.”
During a news conference at the shooting scene Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, declined to comment about whether America’s political climate could be a factor. But he said, “There’s too much, I believe, raw discourse that’s pulling people apart.”
The gunman, identified as James T. Hodgkinson, opened fire Wednesday on Republican lawmakers and associates practicing baseball in a Virginia suburb of Washington. A top House Republican, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and several others were wounded, Scalise critically. Trump said the gunman had been killed.
Police haven’t stated a motive. But Hodgkinson’s strong anti-Republican stances and background as a former volunteer on Bernie Sanders campaign only added to suggestions that the shooting was politically motivated.
Such an assessment could be premature. Some initially attributed the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, to intense partisanship, though no clear motive emerged at the gunman’s trial.
Speaking from the White House after the shooting, Trump called for unity and avoided singling out Democrats. Yet prominent Republicans, including Trump’s children, have long been unsettled by the rage against the president. Daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump said in a recent television interview that she did not expect the “viciousness” and “ferocity” of her father’s critics.
Donald Trump Jr. is among those arguing that “liberal hate speech” leads to violence. He tweeted support for a comment by conservative political consultant Harlan Hill: “Events like today are EXACTLY why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of our president.”
He was referring to a New York City production of “Julius Caesar” that portrays the assassinated title character looking like Trump in a business suit. That came on the heels of comedian Kathy Griffin posing with a bloodied rendering of Trump’s head.
In both cases, there were consequences: lost sponsorships for the theatrical production and CNN dropping Griffin as host of its New Year’s Eve special, despite her apology.
Kirk has been chronicling threats that get little attention outside conservative media.
John Griffin, a media arts and animation professor at the Art Institute of Washington, for example, commented on Facebook about the Republican health care plan, saying: “They should be lined up and shot. That’s not hyperbole; blood is on their hands.”
When Kirk tweeted about the professor’s threat, the University of Georgia chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists, a student group at the Athens campus, wrote, “This is absolutely outrageous! House Republicans should NOT be shot! They should be guillotined.”
Griffin later apologized on Facebook for using “inappropriate” language, but said it spoke to “the fear so many feel right now in this country.” Neither he nor the student group responded to requests for comment.
Democrats, in turn, point to Trump’s rough language — he has urged on fights at his rallies — as justification for their own. And on Wednesday, House Democratic leader James Clyburn of South Carolina said plenty of Democrats have experienced the level of hatred as Republicans.
“I’m not a Republican. And I’ve had all kinds of threats against me and my family,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with partisan politics.”
Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer and radio show host, says the violent rhetoric from all viewpoints contributes to “worse politics in general.” But he warns it is a mistake to say that atmospherics causes any one act of violence.
“Yes, that sort of rage culture is destroying the country,” he said. What happened at the ballfield is “a symptom, but it’s not the chief symptom.”
Later Wednesday, Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York reported to Capitol Police that she’d received a threatening email with the subject line, “One down, 216 to go.” There were 217 Republicans who voted for a health care bill to replace President Barack Obama’s plan, though the email did not explicitly refer to that bill.
This year, lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have experienced rowdy, overflowing town halls that they say border on dangerous. In previous years, Democrats found themselves targeted by angry conservative constituents.
Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican, said he has been concerned that security for members is “nothing near what it needs to be.” He said town halls now often include “a thousand people screaming, and it only takes one person off the reservation” to cause a problem.