Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been a target long before an assassination attempt that left six dead and fourteen wounded. In 2010, her congressional office in Tucson was vandalized soon after an Alabama militiameister called for Democratic Party windows to broken, as Mother Jones journalist James Ridgeway recalled. A gun was dropped at a Douglas, Arizona town hall meeting on health care reform Giffords held in August 2009. Sarah Palin targeted her district with a gun sight cross hairs (err, landscaping symbol) during the last election cycle. (Robert DePugh’s 1960s-era Minutemen used to send their opponents a set of crosshairs in the mail, with an ominous ‘We Are Watching You” business card.) Asked who his daughter’s enemies were, Giffords’ father identified “the whole Tea Party.”
Indeed, Gabrielle Giffords’ Republican opponent last November, Jesse Kelly, was endorsed by several local Tea Parties. Nevertheless, Kelly lost the race by just over one percentage point, or about 4,000 votes.
In the wake of the shooting, Tea Parties might have been gracious and acknowledged the tenacity and humanity of their erstwhile opponent. Instead, several leaders of national Tea Party groups have attempted to use the shooting to paint themselves as the victims and to lash out once again at those they deem their enemies.
In an e-mail to Tea Party Nation members, Judson Phillips urged Tea Party supporters to blame liberals for the attack. “The left is coming and will hit us hard on this. We need to push back harder with the simple truth. The shooter was a liberal lunatic. Emphasis on both words,” he wrote. The ever-disagreeable Phillips also declared that the era of agreeing to disagree was over. He told Roll Call, “[T]he aftermath of today’s shooting is the official obituary for political civility in this country,” he wrote. “The left has simply gone too far. There can be no civil discourse with people as crazy as those on the left are.”
Continuing to ramp up the confrontational rhetoric on the Monday after the shootings, Phillips sent out his ninth email to supporters on the subject:
First, you liberals want to destroy liberty and freedom in this country. We in the Tea Party movement are not going to let that happen.
Second, you started this fight. We could have all taken a moment to decently mourn the murder of six Americans and the attempted assassination of a United States Congressman. As many of us were told as children, ‘you do not start a fight, but you finish a fight.’ The left started this fight and we will finish it.
Something interesting happened in politics in the last 48 hours. The left thought they could pin this on the Tea Party movement and destroy it. Their plan has backfired. Now they are the one’s who want to change this debate and ignore their role in it. They only want to fix an undeserved blame on conservatives.
We are not going to let that happen.
Like Phillips, Sal Russo, the chief strategist behind the Tea Party Express claimed that the alleged shooter was really a leftist. He told Fox News that shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner “was obviously a leftist. He admired Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto. These are not volumes that are popular with the Tea Party so he was obviously a left-wing anarchist, he was probably anti-Semitic.”
One of the volumes popular with Tea Partiers is, Taking Back America: One Tea Party at a Time. Russo should be familiar with the work, since it was written by Mark Williams, the founding chairman of the Tea Party Express, and it was sold on the popular Tea Party Express bus tours. Russo apparently chose to overlook Williams’ invocation of to political violence, “It is time for not just Republicans but all Americans to regroup and stage our own coup. That’s right, ‘coup.'”
In the wake of the shootings, the Tea Party Express also sent out a fundraising email to supporters proclaiming that they “won’t be silenced” — and asking for contributions.
By way of contrast, not a word on this subject has been heard by FreedomWorks Tea Partiers. The 1776 Tea Party faction has also tried to keep their heads down during the aftermath of the shootings. Dale Robertson, the founder of the group, backed away from his traditionally aggressive rhetoric in an email to supporters. He stated, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Gifford, her family and the families of all those who have been touched by this tragedy.” He lauded praise on Congresswoman Giffords and declared that, “The Tea Party has long advocated the peaceful expression of our rights to protest and we denounce all acts of violence.” A closer look at the organization shows the hollowness of Robertson’s words.
As noted in Tea Party Nationalism, the 1776 Tea Party is run by Steve Eichler and Tim Bueler of the Minuteman Project, the anti-immigrant vigilante group stained by a horrific murder of another Arizona 9-year old girl. The Minuteman Project’s “border operations director,” Shawna Forde, is currently on trial for the murder of Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia in Arizona. The murder of the Flores’ was allegedly part of a plot to secure funds for their border war. Records collected after the arrests indicate that Eichler was one of the last people Forde spoke to before she was arrested.
The Patriot Action Network (the Tea Party faction previously known as ResistNet: the home of the Patriotic Resistance) also avoided the temptation to cash in on this tragedy, except for several website postings by chair Darla Dawald. She too wrote as if the Tea Parties were the victims in this shooting.
Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, however, used the situation much like Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation. Meckler too painted the Tea Party as innocent victims. “To see the left exploit this for political advantage – some people have no conscience,” Meckler said. “It’s genuinely revolting…I think it sinks to the level of evil.” Added Meckler: “if these scumbags want to play it politically, let it be on their conscience.”
Meckler did, however, have words for other Tea Party leaders. On Monday evening, on CBSNews.com’s “Washington Unplugged,” program, Meckler criticized the notion that the killer was a leftist. Calling the argument “craziness,” Meckler said people like Phillips and Tea Party Express’ Sal Russo “should know better.”
The other Tea Party Patriots co-founder, Jenny Beth Martin, tried to avoid the issue altogether. She told The Daily Beast that while she sent a sympathetic email to the local Tea Party chapter for Tucson, she has not been working with state and local Tea Party groups to coordinate any kind of response to the incident. She did not mention whether the public relations firm recently hired by the group was doing any message coordination with the local groups.
Allyson Miller, a founder of the Tucson-area Pima County Tea Party Patriots, affiliated with Tea Party Patriots, told Talking Points Memo that her group is not going to tone down their rhetoric: “I think anytime you start suppressing freedom of speech, I think it’s wrong. I live here and I didn’t hear anything [in the 2010 campaign] that concerned me in terms of inciting violence.”
Such rhetoric has caused Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik to aver that Arizona has become a “Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”