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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

GOP Leaders Match Up Message to Violent Talk

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Words matter -- and they matter even more when they are violent words. Apparently, GOP leadership agrees.

Despite the unwillingness of mainstream media to connect the dots, the base and leadership of the GOP are matching their rhetoric to the disturbing rise of violent talk at Tea Party rallies and amongst conservative anti-government groups. The conclusion: rather than recoil at violent language, GOP leadership seems to see it as a chance to turn out votes.

Most notably, Chairman of the RNC Michael Steele issued a recent call to Republicans to put Nancy Pelosi on the "firing line" because of the health insurance reform bill.

By using the phrase "firing line," Steele encourages Republican activists to think of the next election as an execution of the opposition or a violent killing. The language Steele uses is not neutral. "Defeat" is defined as "kill." "Voting" is linked to "shooting." Winning the election is couched in an image of bloodletting.

In a similar violent vein, Sarah Palin via Twitter told her Republican followers to "reload" and "aim for" Democrats, directing GOP activists to her SarahPac website where they found a map of the country festooned with rifle scope cross-hairs over Congressional districts held by Democrats.

Palin's rifle scope map is the kind of image one might expect to see in an ad for a violent, first-person shooter video game. Again, neither the language nor the imagery Palin uses are neutral. For Palin, the concepts of political "organizing" and "volunteering" are recast as the functions of a rifle. "Campaigning" is re-imagined as a counter assault on a war battlefield. Even more disturbing, Palin re-imagines the traditional U.S. map as a military kill list. Engaging in election politics is framed as violent assault.

When seen in the context of this violent rhetoric by the highest-profile figures in the Republican Party, recent calls for gun violence seen at Tea Party rallies on Capital Hill take on new meaning.

If the GOP leadership is truly appalled by calls for violence in response to legislation passed in Congress, their language would reflect that abhorrence for violence. Instead, GOP leadership seems to be shaping their messages to match the violent turn in the rhetoric from their base.

Even more disturbing, however, the violent framing from GOP leadership has suddenly sprung up in a context where anti-government conservative groups are inciting their members to engage in physical acts of violence against Democrats, resulting in bricks being thrown through windows of Democratic Party offices and vandalism against the house of a Democratic Congressman's family member.

Mike Vanderboegh, former leader of the Alabama Constitutional Militia, recently called for hundreds of thousands of gun owners to "point their muzzles at the hearts of tyrants" when discussing ways to oppose recent congressional legislation. Reports have come out linking Vanderboegh's statements to recent violence against Democratic Party offices.

What should be done?

First and foremost: The mainstream media has an obligation to connect the sudden use of violent rhetoric and imagery by GOP leadership to the various incidents of violent language and actions by political activists. Telling viewers that right-wing violence is "isolated" or "fringe" is inaccurate at best, misleading and dishonest at worst.

Second: GOP leadership needs to make unequivocal statements condemning all explicit use of violence and violent rhetoric in politics. Silence is consent.

Third: GOP leadership needs to demonstrates constructive ways for their supporters to express their disagreement with the opposition's ideas or legislation. Brandishing weapons--either literally or on posters--is not constructive. Death threats are not constructive.

When Americans threaten to use firearms to enforce their political views, the violent threats carried by that language undermines the system of public debate on which our system depends. Healthy political debate can sustain a great deal of anger and passion, but it cannot sustain repeated threats of violence and calls for violent assault as a form of political engagement.

It is time to for right-wing political violence to stop before passions turn to bloodshed.

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