Permissible and Impermissible Incendiary Speech?

United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) hit the airwaves to connect the recent assault on Paul Pelosi with “fascism” and “white nationalism.” She insists that both are now ubiquitous. And both prompt increasing politically motivated violence. (Ocasio-Cortez remains oblivious to the greatest sustained political violence in our recent history; the 120 days of Black Lives Matter and Antifa-fueled rioting, arson, looting, and mayhem of summer and fall 2020—often cheered on or defended by public officials and social media.)

The deplorable violent attack on Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has been described as the logical reification of increasing bitter political discourse. Shrill accusations spread even as full details of the attack are still not known. But the general picture of the assailant is one of an unhinged conspiracy freak of all flavors. He seems to have been a lunatic, drug-crazed white supremacist and anti-Semite, a former hemp jeweler, and nudist, who was either homeless or was living in a cluttered hippie-like commune in Berkeley plastered with pride and BLM flags. 

Nonetheless, almost immediately the Left has seized on the attack to blame supposed right-wing political rhetoric as the cause. 

As we enter the final week before the midterms and likely near-historic Democratic losses in Congress, this effort to manipulate violence in the news for last-minute political advantage will increase—but certainly it is not new. 

In late October 2018, after the despicable mass lethal shooting of worshipers in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, the Left immediately blamed Donald Trump and his supporters. That useful pre-midterm narrative insisted that Trump had provided the rhetorical fireworks that set off anti-Semite and conspiracy nut, Robert Gregory Bowers. 

The killer came from an atrocious family background. He was a known loner and outsider who came to embrace white nationalism. But in his incoherent rants and postings, he had made it clear that he was also no fan of Donald Trump. He considered the president pro-Jewish (Trump’s son-in law is Jewish and his daughter a Jewish convert) and a “globalist.” That fact, apparently, was of no importance. For the next week before the midterms, the media saturated coverage of supposed Trump culpability for Bowers’ crazy violence. 

In general, the Left has three predictable characteristics when it seizes upon pre-election news of shootings and assaults.

Things Just Happen to Conservatives 

Violence of any sort against conservative political figures rarely has anything to do with combustible rhetoric emanating from the Left. 

When New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin was recently physically attacked on stage by a troubled alcoholic David G. Jakubonis (released into an alcoholic recovery program from police custody a few weeks after his attempt on Zeldin’s life), the media made no effort to tie the assault to politically driven rhetoric. 

When Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was severely injured by a crazed neighbor, there was no suggestion that left-wing extremist talk, and in particular political attacks on Paul, had pushed the assailant over the edge—although there was plenty of undisguised liberal schadenfreude at Paul’s injuries. For example, in a March 2020 tweet, Christine Pelosi (Nancy and Paul’s daughter) snarked: “Rand Paul’s neighbor was right.” 

James Hodgkinson was a declared left-wing political activist and former Bernie Sanders campaign worker who went hunting for Republican legislators and ended up shooting six people—among them Representative Steven Scalise (R-La.), the House majority whip at the time, who nearly died. 

The media did not attempt to tie the unstable Hodgkinson to often hysterical anti-Trump and anti-MAGA rhetoric of the time. And the matter was mostly forgotten as the work of another unhinged shooter.

Acceptable Violent Rhetoric?

Second, calls for violence from the political Left, often from among its most high-profile officials, are simply dismissed as occasional excitable verbiage. They are not considered to play a role in any subsequent shooting or assault as a catalyst for the unhinged. Consider what then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) screamed in March 2020 to an angry throng of pro-abortion protestors before the very doors of the Supreme Court:

I want to tell you Gorsuch. I want to tell you Kavanaugh. You have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.

Ostensibly nothing could have been more combustible than riling up an already furious crowd of pro-abortion protestors, then identifying Supreme Court justices by name, then claiming the two named would pay a justified “price” for their actions, and then issuing an “if you . . .” threat through vivid imagery of violence, e.g. “You won’t know what hit you if you …”

The response? Few in the media believed that Schumer had lowered the bar on what was acceptable speech directed at the Court—not even when two years later a fanatical pro-abortionist, would-be assassin Nicholas Roske showed up near Brett Kavanaugh’s home. Roske was apparently angry over illegal court leaks that Kavanaugh would vote to repeal Roe v. Wade. The would-be assassin certainly wished Kavanaugh “to pay the price.”     

Both before and after that scary aborted hit, protestors had shown up at Kavanaugh’s home and also forced him to leave a restaurant. Note that Pelosi and House Democrats held up House passage of bipartisan legislation to provide increased security for Supreme Court justices. That bill had passed unanimously in the Senate and would have been sent immediately to get Joe Biden’s signature, were it not for Pelosi’s hold-up.

On Inauguration Day in 2017, Madonna infamously screamed to an angry crowd assembled about the ceremonies, “Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I am outraged. Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.”

No one considered that such inflammatory imagery had anything to do with the numerous threats that Trump, like all elected presidents, received. Indeed “fact checkers” immediately went to work, as they do in such examples of left-wing incendiary rhetoric, to offer “context” in order to avoid any “misunderstanding” or “confusion” about what Madonna was “really” trying to convey. 

Ditto in June 2020, when Kamala Harris offered an incendiary boast of approval to Stephen Colbert—just 17 days after a violent BLM and Antifa-led crowd in Lafayette Park attempted to torch the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, and then sought to storm the White House grounds, sending the Secret Service and the Trump family into a secure presidential bunker:

But they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop. They’re not. This is a movement. I’m telling you. They’re not going to stop, and everyone, beware. Because they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop before election day in November, and they are not going to stop after Election Day. And everyone should take note of that on both levels. That they’re not going to let up. And they should not, and we should not.

Again, the media and “fact checkers” insisted she was referring only to peaceful protests, although the summer riots of 2020 entailed $2 billion in damage, dozens killed, 1,500 law-enforcement officers injured, the torching of a federal courthouse and police precincts, and 14,000 arrests. 

At the height of the June 2020 violence, New York Times essayist and architect of the “1619 Project” ruse, Nikole Hannah-Jones, dismissed the nationwide massive looting with the apologetics: 

Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence . . . Any reasonable person would say we shouldn’t be destroying other people’s property, but these are not reasonable times.

An unbiased observer might have concluded her televised editorialization empowered looting and violence that nearly always accompanied it. 

Sometimes leftist elected officials were more focused than Harris or Schumer in their calls for physical confrontations. Consider Maxine Waters’ sick June 2018 clarion call to physically confront and harass Trump officials:

Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere . . . The people are going to turn on them. They’re going to protest. They’re going to absolutely harass them until they decide that they’re going to tell the president, ‘No, I can’t hang with you.’ 

Since the Obama era, there has been a serial effort to demonize the working class as somehow Neanderthal-like, clueless, and to be written off. Obama’s “clingers” slur transmogrified into Hillary’s “deplorables” and “irredeemables,” and on into Biden’s “chumps” and “dregs.” And we forget sometimes that well before Donald Trump’s chants of “Lock her up!” it was Barack Obama on the campaign trail who suggested to his supporters to confront their adversaries and “Get in their faces.”      

And Obama gave further advice about such confrontations, saying: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun. Because from what I understand, folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.” And lest we forget, Obama reminded his supporters “I don’t want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry!” 

Joe Biden waited until his campaign and presidency to hone his prior tough talk—for example, of taking Trump behind the gym to beat him up or calling those at his campaign events “fat” and “lying dog-faced pony soldiers”—into a fiery condemnation of his political opponents. In two now infamous speeches in recent months, Biden damned roughly half the country (“It’s not just Trump”) as “semi-fascists”:

What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy . . . It’s not just Trump. It’s the entire philosophy that underpins the—I’m going to say something: It’s like semi-fascism.

Biden a few days later elaborated on that charge in an even more divisive rant couched in near-Old Testament imagery: “MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.” 

Again, despite the efforts of fact checkers and press secretaries to contextualize Biden’s eerie speech, the clear meaning of his speech writers was that Republicans who had voted for Trump had irrevocably “made their choice” not to live with the rest of the nation in the “light” of truth, but rather in some dark nether regions among the “shadow of lies.”     

A disturbed leftist might at this point ask, if half the nation is semi-fascist and thrives on anger and dwells in some dark domain of lies, what then are we to do with such hopeless threats to democracy? 

Unleash the FBI to “lose” subpoenaed phone records, to alter court documents, and knowingly to deceive a FISA judge with a false dossier? Have the FBI work with social media to censor unwelcome political speech or to mislead and suppress information deleterious to Biden’s campaign? Summarily excuse the FBI hierarchy after lying to federal investigators?

Have FBI informants work to destroy a political campaign, transition, and presidency? Surveille parents at school board meetings on the prompt of teachers’ unions? 

To deal with Morlock semi-fascists and those in the “shadows,” are any means then necessary?

Projection Again

Third, attributing violence to conservative political rhetoric is characteristic of the larger progressive embrace of projection. And by now we know how that tic works.

Those who deify Stacey Abrams or are amused by Hillary Clinton’s near decade-long lunatic obsessions with election denial are the most prone to scream “election denier!” They slander anyone who expresses doubts about the 2020 balloting, in a fashion that Clinton, Jill Stein, Hollywood stars, or Jimmy Carter routinely did in 2016.

Joe Biden’s long history of racist slurs and outbursts have become prerequisites for his current serial charges of “racism!”—extending now to the absence of sufficient leg space in economy class.

Screaming “Russian collusion” is a guarantee that the progressive accusers—Hillary Clinton and her cohort—were past masters of colluding with the Russians. Their paid henchmen like Igor Danchenko and Charles Dolan vacuumed up Russian-leaked lies to feed Christopher Steele with the known falsehoods central to his collusion charge.

So, too, the more the Left charges conservatives with rhetorical culpability for subsequent violence, all the more the guardians of proper political speech can contextualize and excuse what a Charles Schumer or Maxine Waters or Joe Biden says. 

Their logic is the fallacy that those who police violent political verbiage cannot themselves possibly ever need such policing—or in fact peremptorily police others precisely to excuse their own culpability. 

So, yes, let us by all means tone down the political fireworks lest the nation’s unhinged translate such rhetoric to violence. But let us also remember that for many on the Left, what most see as incendiary and violent rhetoric is simply contextualized as the necessary talk of social justice.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.

Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

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