Americans who have become intoxicated with political fury should be sobered by the gun attack on a group of Republican lawmakers, aides and others at a baseball field in Alexandria, Va.
On Wednesday morning, the Republicans were practicing for an annual charity game in which they take on their Democratic counterparts when, without warning, a 66-year-old, Donald Trump-despising Bernie Sanders fan from Illinois pulled out a rifle and started shooting at them. Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, was seriously wounded. Three others were hit as well, including two Capitol police officers who were on hand to provide security for Scalise. The shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, was killed when the security team and Alexandria police returned fire.
Now, everyone is asking what in the world drove Hodgkinson to do such a terrible thing.
Early reports indicate that there were a few anger-driven, aggressive confrontations in Hodgkinson's past, but no record of mental health problems. He was a married man who ran a building inspection business; a person whom acquaintances described as "a normal guy" who was "very nice."
"He wasn't evil," one friend said in an interview. "I guess he was tired of the politics."
Politics did appear to consume him. His Facebook page was filled with rants against Trump, Republicans and the big corporations that have so much influence over congressional legislation. In March, apparently, he left home and headed to Washington to protest. For some reason, his compulsion to protest turned violent when he came out of the Alexandria YMCA and saw the Republican team on the nearby baseball field.
Among the many reasons this incident is shocking is that Hodgkinson does not fit the usual stereotypes. He was not a troubled young loner like the killers at Columbine High School or Sandy Hook Elementary. He was not obviously mentally deranged like Jared Lee Loughner, the man who gunned down Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson six years ago. He wasn't a right wing extremist like the man accused of stabbing to death two men who interrupted his anti-Muslim rant against two women on a commuter train in Portland, Ore. He wasn't a white supremacist like Dylann Roof, who killed nine people during a prayer service at a black church in Charleston, S.C.
Hodgkinson was old enough to be eligible for Social Security. He had friends and family and a job. He was a gun owner whose politics leaned sharply left, not right. If he resembles anyone in the long litany of men involved in shooting incidents, it would be Edgar Welch, the earnest family man who drove from North Carolina to Washington and shot off several rounds inside a pizza shop near Dupont Circle. Welch had bought into a preposterous right wing conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were holding children as sex slaves somewhere behind the pizza boxes.
Hodgkinson seems to have become consumed with the idea that the election of Trump was a dire threat to democracy. Unlike the pizza shop fantasy, an evidentiary argument can be made for that point of view. Hodgkinson's favored candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has himself called Trump the worst and most dangerous president in U.S. history. But Hodgkinson took those sentiments beyond reason. "It's time to destroy Trump & co.," he wrote on Facebook.
In the hours since the shooting at the baseball field, right-wing commentators, as well as former GOP Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, have railed against the political left for spewing angry rhetoric and "hate speech" that inspired Hodgkinson's act. This is as blatantly hypocritical as anyone can get. Gingrich rose to power by prodding his Republican colleagues to attack Democratic opponents not just as misguided, but as treasonous. Right-wing rabble rousers, such as Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, have built their careers on vicious invective and conspiracy mongering.
Which is not to say the left is pure. The battle between Clinton and Sanders in the Democratic primaries brought out the worst in people on both sides. Folks on the far left cling to their own litany of conspiracy theories that are as weird and unfounded as any manufactured by the far right. On college campuses, a disturbing number of student activists have moved beyond traditional protest to aggressive intimidation and self-righteous intolerance.
From left to right, American politics has become toxic and it cannot be simplistically blamed on Trump. He is a mere manifestation of a national inclination to demonize and demean anyone with whom we disagree, an inclination that has been growing for years, fed by partisan media outlets and lies spread on the Internet. Sure, it is appalling that Trump's simplistic demagoguery won him election to the White House, but Democrats and progressives cannot let alarm and anger overwhelm the better angels of their nature. And the same goes for Republicans and conservatives.
There is a lot of violence in our political culture, and sometimes it is expressed in actions. More often, though, the violence spills out in our words, festers in our minds and chills our hearts.