Every time I hear somebody say that America’s contemporary political climate is uniquely violent, I wonder, “Where were you during the Nixon years?”
Too young to remember the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy? The Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention? The killings at Kent State? A “Weatherman” bomb factory detonating in Greenwich Village? Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army? The 1992 Los Angeles riots …
The list could go on indefinitely. Politics in America has been a blood sport basically all my life. I’ve gotten regular death threats for as long as I’ve written this column, starting during the Clinton administration. One guy used to phone late Friday nights from a pay phone outside a liquor store, threatening to murder me and rape my wife.
Detailed, graphic threats at that.
After the phone company traced the calls, the police assured me that anonymous callers are cowards who get a thrill out of talking dirty. He would never show up. As, indeed, he never did.
Cellphones have pretty much put an end to such calls. They can’t find your number. It might surprise you, however, to learn how many guys are dumb enough to commit the crime of making terroristic threats in an email. These days, as soon as they start, I simply block them. But I also keep a file. The only interesting thing is the psychological projection: who they think they’re talking to, and who they pretend to be.
Hairy-chested he-men, mostly. Guys who, in the immortal words of ’50s wrestling icon Dr. Jerry Graham, “men fear and women adore.” (Donald Trump stole his whole act from the grappler, but that’s another story.) In my experience, real tough guys don’t go around boasting about it. Only professional wrestlers and Republican politicians.
OK, that was a cheap shot. But consider Rep. Paul Gosar, the congressman who tweeted a cartoon video of himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Biden with a sword. Rather like my guy outside the liquor store, I’d say.
See, the thing that drives these boys crazy about AOC isn’t simply her Bernie-crat politics, but her quick-witted New York bartender’s demeanor: She’s the kind of beautiful woman skilled at fending off jerks who make clumsy passes.
Politically speaking, I’ve got my own issues with AOC and “the Squad.” Democrats who label themselves “socialist” are doing the right-wingers’ work for them. In much of the country, the label’s simply toxic, and no amount of clever apologetics can make it less so.
But I digress. Sentenced to double-secret probation by House Democrats, Gosar was championed by virtually the entire GOP delegation in a scene right out of “Animal House.” See it’s perfectly all right to fantasize publicly about murdering a colleague and assaulting the president if you were just kidding.
Then there’s Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, another virile specimen last seen raising his fist in solidarity with Trump’s Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Hawley gave a recent speech at the National Conservatism Conference calling for “revival of strong and healthy manhood in America.” Judging by media accounts, it sounded like a declaration of war against Ivy League gender studies departments, who Hawley thinks are responsible for young men wasting their precious bodily fluids playing video games and watching porn.
Literally, that’s what he said.
“Hmmmm,” observed Washington Post conservative columnist Kathleen Parker. “Why is it that the guys who look as though they’ve never so much as pushed a lawn mower are always the ones who want to saddle up and save the womenfolk?”
Cruel, unfair and precisely on target.
My response to Hawley is as follows: Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to watch this week’s Michigan-Ohio State football game. Do you still think effeminate girly-men are taking over the U.S.? Closer to home, the Missouri-Arkansas game would do.
Everywhere you look, privileged characters with fancy private school degrees are venting populist rage. Stirring up the mob. Not only Hawley (Stanford and Yale), but establishment figures like Sen. Ted Cruz (Princeton and Harvard) and J.D. Vance (Yale Law) filled the air with violent invective.
To longtime conservative author David Brooks, they’re “wrong to think there is a unified thing called ‘the left’ that hates America. This is just the apocalyptic menace many of them had to invent in order to justify their decision to vote for Donald Trump.”
The mob is definitely listening. At a right-wing rally in Idaho recently, a young man asked — publicly — when it would be OK to kill Democrats: “How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”
The crowd applauded. See, lies and crackpot rhetoric have consequences.
So when will the shooting start?
This is America. Stick around.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.