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Firing Lines

How a morally inert media complex supplies alibis for right-wing terror

Amid last week’s onslaught of right-wing terror, the armature of our centrist political culture remained magisterially intact. After the third late-middle-aged white terrorist of the week, Robert Bowers, sowed his portion of mayhem, slaughtering eleven congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, goateed moral idiot Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, decided the right way to put all this into perspective was to book Erick Erickson, the Atlanta-based hate merchant who functions as a cleaned-up Alex Jones in our grotesquely distorted mediasphere.

Among his other antics, Erickson has previously boasted to his social media followers that he’d shot a copy of the New York Times featuring a front-page editorial on the need for substantive action on gun control. He’s also promoted the baseless and vicious smear of Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg holding that the antigun activist wasn’t even present at his high school the day a deranged right-leaning shooter had slain seventeen of Hogg’s classmates and school staffers. (The general idea back then on the paranoid-sadistic right was to promote the notion that Hogg and the other Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students leading a revived push for minimally sane gun laws were in fact “crisis actors,” conspiring with liberal media enablers to plaster fake-news narratives throughout our saintly AR-15-toting republic.) And just over the past few weeks, Erickson had joined the lusty right-pundit chorus loudly claiming that the Honduras-based immigrant caravan slowly marching toward America’s southern border is a Democratic election-year gimmick—which, once translated from its dog-whistle, reinforces the raging conspiracy theory on the right that the caravan is a wholly owned subsidiary of liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros. This was, in other words, the very species of crude anti-Semitic delusion that sent Pittsburgh gunman Bowers through Tree of Life’s doors, explaining to a police officer after he’d been apprehended that “they’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” All in all, putting Erickson before the American public to sort out the plague of right-wing terror is a lot like making William Burroughs the designated spokesman for a “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign.

Nevertheless, Erickson duly hit his pundit mark. He offered sternly worded denunciations of political violence and anti-Semitism for the network cameras, and Todd meekly noted that there’d been some, ahem, rhetorical excesses in Erickson’s career. Thus another corporate-sponsored, content-free session of Kabuki-style pattycake drew to a close. Still, the broader backdrop to this nauseating scene shouldn’t be forgotten: a major news network that has arrogated to itself the role of responsible civil interlocutor in the political controversies of the day had decided to respond to a wave of domestic terror perpetrated by deranged right-wing ideologues by furnishing a high-profile platform to a deranged right-wing ideologue. How, exactly, does this sort of imbecility guide the coverage of our politics?

Our pundit class saw a failing of collective manners instead of a violent uprising among bigots and white supremacists sanctioned by a major political party.

For an answer, one only need recur to the stylized elite commentary spewing forth from the citadels of punditry earlier in the week, as pipe bombs sporting the cheery alt-right slogan “get ’er done” rendered in the typographic style of an ISIS flag kept surfacing in the mailboxes of liberal politicians, donors, and culture mavens. Even though the bombs turned out to be the handiwork of Cesar Sayoc, a MAGA disciple of the first rank, Americans were being studiously chided by our media and political betters to be level-headed about the threat of political violence in the Trump era. Both sides do itpolitical lackeys on both major-party sides cooed. Unite and be civil, our centrist statesmen lamented in the face of deadly fascist hatred. Maybe the media really is to blame, sinecured Never Trumpers in the media boldly suggested.

Now that Sayoc, who brings a whole new level of queasy meaning to the Florida Man meme, is in custody, a good deal of this blather should be firmly discredited in our ever-narrowing arenas of political reason. But the formulaic appeal to the late lamented canons of civility has always been distinctly evidence-averse, and is unlikely to lose any traction in the wake of Sayoc’s arrest, or after the horrific massacre in Pittsburgh.

As I’ve had weary occasion to note already, the household pundit god of political civility has always been a self-interested reverie of the powerful, most frequently invoked to silence the specter of dissent on the left. But the séance-like effort to conjure a woefully ailing and dissension-ridden body politic as the premier cause of a long-running plague of extremist violence on the right has become its own bizarre brand of wish-fulfillment fantasy. Beholding a multifront and explicitly ideological campaign to assassinate an expanding cadre of political enemies, our pundit class saw a putative failing of collective manners instead of an all-too-legible violent uprising among bigots and white supremacists sanctioned by a major political party. It’s a bit as if, say, the Republican partisans of the Union cause in the Civil War were to write off that historic political disagreement to the slaveocracy’s slovenly diction. (Lest you think a Civil War analogy in this context a tad overheated and decidedly, well, uncivil, remember that the American republic’s great sectional crisis was preceded by a long run of violent assaults in the citadels of federal lawmaking that were a far cry from the civil and decorous accounts of legislative deliberation you find in The Federalist Papers.)

In reality, of course, the threat of right-wing domestic terror has been incubating with minimal law enforcement oversight for the better part of a decade now. Baffler contributor Dave Neiwert has reported on and documented this trend in chilling and edifying detail—but of course, as an avowed foe of right-wing political violence in its all-too-plain ideological form, Neiwert is denied the sort of respectable hearing in mainstream media outlets that Erickson and the other bad-faith conservative apostles of the both-sides-do-it civility fetish enjoy as a matter of course.

How deep-seated is the political establishment’s aversion to calling the threat of right-wing domestic terrorism by its true name? Back in 2009, the U.S. Homeland Security Department issued a sobering report on the threat of rightist violence in the wake of Barack Obama’s election and the 2008 financial meltdown. The report, originally intended as a resource for local law enforcement agencies, leaked to the right-wing press, and a veritable hailstorm of theatrical affront followed. Here’s how former DHS analyst Daryl Johnson, who oversaw the study, recounts the whole dismal spectacle:

political backlash ensued because of an objection to the label “right-wing extremism.” The report also rightly pointed out that returning military veterans may be targeted for recruitment by extremists. Republican lawmakers demanded then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rescind my report. The American Legion formally requested an apology to veterans. Some in Congress called for me to be fired. Amid the turmoil, my warning went unheeded by Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security caved to the political pressure: Work related to violent right-wing extremism was halted. Law enforcement training also stopped. My unit was disbanded. And, one-by-one, my team of analysts left for other employment. By 2010, there were no intelligence analysts at DHS working domestic terrorism threats.

The year that Homeland Security elected to look the other way in the face of domestic right-wing terrorism also marked the great coming-into-power moment for the Tea Party insurgency on the right—that ultracivil protest against the Obama administration’s bank bailouts and health-care reform efforts that routinely featured shows of handgun force. It needs no great belaboring of the fusion of the right-wing fringe and the GOP political establishment to note that the bellicose small-government Town Hall hectorers of 2010 have morphed in remarkably short order into the “very fine people” of the Trumpian alt-right. The braying and disingenuous cries of conservative victimhood that sealed the Johnson report’s political doom have now been quite literally weaponized in a political scene that looks placidly on the acquittal of the principals in the Bundy clan’s deadly standoff with federal authorities, and the Proud Boys’ de facto annexation as the Brown Shirt division of the Republican Party. To call any appropriately serious attention to these violent displays of political intimidation is to violate the canons of our political culture’s monk-like devotion to ineffectual handwringing in the face of mass carnage.

The racially motivated murders in Jeffersonville barely dented last week’s news cycle—in part, one supposes, because cable producers are now inured to such attacks as the new normal in Donald Trump’s America.

Meanwhile, of course, both the rhetoric and practice of right-wing terror continue unabated. As cable outlets clamored to the pro forma denunciations of political violence in Trumpland, a very different narrative was already unfolding, as usual, in America proper. In Jeffersontown, Kentucky, Gregory Bush, a fifty-one-year-old white man, shot and killed two African American customers at a Kroger’s grocery store. A son of one of the witnesses on the scene said that when the armed Bush emerged into the parking lot he reassured that armed witness that “whites don’t kill whites,” and moved on. Reportedly, Bush had previously tried to enter a predominantly African American church, but couldn’t get inside, strongly suggesting that he was setting out to imitate Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

Bush’s racially motivated murders barely dented last week’s news cycle—in part, one supposes, because cable producers are now long inured to such attacks as the new normal in Donald Trump’s America. (There’s some faint hope that the sheer ghastliness of the Tree of Life slayings might encourage our media class to adopt a more robustly critical posture toward the American right’s decade-long lurch into Kristallnacht mode, but it’s likelier that the other vigilante racist assaults certain to continue coming from the racist and nationalist MAGA right will be given the studiously aloof and decontextualized lone-wolf treatment that cynical shills and demagogues like the erstwhile Trump chew toy Marco Rubio are already begging for as simple “common sense.”)

In any event, there’s another, still uglier reason that attacks like Bush’s never claim pride of place in news coverage memos: there’s simply no incentive, career-wise, for providing anything like an in-depth breakdown of the ideology of right-wing terror in a media and political culture dedicated to providing centrist dismissals of the threat. Again, this is no rhetorical exaggeration. Back in 2009, when Daryl Johnson’s Homeland Security memo leaked to the right-wing press, the energetic leakee was Eli Lake, then a national security correspondent for the Washington Times. Lake solicited outraged comments from various right-wing apparatchiks about the report’s excesses, and then, in the disingenuous tradition of compromised hacks, produced a series of follow-on reports and cable hits on the “public furor” sparked by the report’s findings—a furor that both Lake and the Washington Times were didactically committed to creating and stoking. And sure enough, come last week’s bombings, Lake—now hoisted onto a high-prestige perch as a Bloomberg columnist—took to his Twitter feed to sagely remind his followers that “the fringe left and fringe right have conducted political violence throughout American history. It’s not an either/or it’s an and/both (sic).” In other words: the grift rolls on. And the body count climbs.