High-level gestures of conciliation did little to blunt the sense that America’s civic culture is consumed with anger and breaking down.

Share story

The violence has come regularly for years, in one politically charged spasm after another. A member of Congress shot through the head in Tucson, Arizona. Assaults on the Holocaust Museum, a Planned Parenthood office and the Family Research Council, a socially conservative group. Gunmen targeting black churchgoers in South Carolina, Indian immigrants in Kansas and police officers in New York and Texas.

The attempted slaughter of Republican lawmakers on a baseball diamond outside Washington was less an aberration than the latest example of a grim trend, widely remarked upon by leaders in both parties, but never slowed or stopped.

With four people hospitalized Wednesday, a process of mourning and recrimination unfolded as a kind of familiar ritual, with a somber statement from the president and bipartisan denunciations of violence quickly giving way to finger-pointing and blame on social media.

Even high-level gestures of conciliation, including from President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, did little to blunt the sense that America’s civic culture is consumed with anger and breaking down — though mental illness sometimes makes it impossible to say exactly what leads to violence.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

To survivors of past attacks, the shooting in Virginia — perpetrated by a 66-year-old former Sanders supporter who expressed rage over Trump’s presidency — came as a sign that the worst might still be ahead.

Former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., said the violence reflected a contagion in the nation’s political culture, in which adversaries were treated as “people to be destroyed.” He said Trump and Democratic leaders, and the news media, all deserved blame.

“We are inundated by rage,” Danforth, who is an ordained minister, said in an interview. “It’s not just practicing politicians. It’s the demand from the base of the two parties, and it is in large part encouraged by the media.”

Danforth, 80, issued a searing rebuke to his own party in 2015, after the suicide of a state officeholder, Thomas Schweich, who had been the target of brutal personal attacks. In a eulogy, Danforth warned, “Words can kill.” He acknowledged ruefully Wednesday that practitioners of that brand of politics seldom paid a price for it. “It apparently works,” he said. “It wins elections, wins ratings.”

Ron Barber, a former aide to Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, D-Ariz., who was wounded in the 2011 shooting that nearly killed her, and briefly replaced her in Congress, said Wednesday’s attack brought back “terrible memories” for him. After his own election in 2012, Barber recalled, people left messages at his office threatening to punch or kill him.

“Fast-forward to 2017, and I’m sorry to say, it gets worse,” said Barber, a Democrat. “What happened in 2016 was a presidential campaign that I think really ramped up the anger and vulgarities that we see directed at members of Congress.”

That toxicity does not emanate only from politicians, Barber said. “I am on Facebook and I see things there that I couldn’t imagine anyone saying about another person,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase in racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. It’s time for all our leaders, from the president on down, to say, ‘Stop.’”

Among conservatives, the shooting appeared to confirm a belief that liberal opposition to Trump had taken a sinister turn, veering into outright violence. For liberals, the attack stirred concern about the potential for extremism on the left, and deepened a sense — dating from Barack Obama’s presidency — that ordinary partisan conflicts had taken on more menacing overtones.

Hope that the political system would self-correct seemed to compete with cynicism about the idea that things might even be salvageable. Kari Duma, 45, of Tucson, said she was skeptical that the country would hear Wednesday’s gunshots as a “wake-up call.”

“How many wake-up calls do we need?” she asked.

There is a long history of political bloodshed and assassination in the United States, sometimes carried out by ideological actors and at other times by people who are mentally unstable. Gunmen have killed four presidents and shot at several others, and killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk.

Mentally ill people have targeted members of Congress before, too, including Giffords and Allard K. Lowenstein, who was slain in his office. In 2003, a member of the New York City Council, James Davis, was shot to death by a political opponent.

The apparent violent turn in national politics and the disappearance of traditional rules of civility also come as mass shootings — usually targeting nonpolitical civilian targets in schools and public places — are on the rise.

Some question the correlation between violence and political rhetoric, stressing that gunmen who attack political targets are often unstable or angry for unrelated reasons.

George Brauchler, a Colorado district attorney who prosecuted James Holmes, who killed 12 people in an Aurora movie theater in 2012, said he was inclined to view the gunman outside Washington on Wednesday chiefly as “evil.”

“I don’t know that politics facilitates that or if it’s just an excuse for it,” said Brauchler, a Republican who is running for governor.

Among politicians and voters Wednesday, there was at least a visceral link between the latest violence and a long-running disintegration of civic norms, which has left candidates and commentators freer than ever to stoke hateful impulses with little fear of consequences.

In 2011, the shooting of Giffords by a mentally ill assailant came during a convulsive political period, when a bitter debate over health care yielded a wave of threats against lawmakers. Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, drew sharp criticism for having posted a graphic online that showed crosshairs over the districts of several members of Congress, including that of Giffords, though no connection to the crime was established.

Trump has been a dabbler in provocative rhetoric, goading attendees at his rallies to rough up protesters, and suggesting last summer that “Second Amendment people” could take action if Hillary Clinton were elected. He was unapologetic for comments that critics said verged on incitement.

But Trump has not had a monopoly on caustic language. Activists on the left have accused the president of “treason,” which can carry a death sentence, and compared him to Adolf Hitler. Comedian Kathy Griffin recently apologized after posting a video in which she brandished a prop version of Trump’s bloody and severed head.