Rush Limbaugh, the most influential conservative talk show host in the country, and a man whom Republicans made an honorary member of the 1995 freshman class in recognition of his role in helping them win the House majority, explained recently that the still-anonymous bomber could not be on the political right. “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” he explained. “From the Haymarket riot to the Unabomber, bombs are a liberal tactic,” added Ann Coulter.
The discovery that the person suspected of mailing bombs to various figures Donald Trump has described as enemy threats is in fact a Trump-supporting Republican has necessitated a change in emphasis. Whereas before conservatives insisted the bomber’s method told us everything we needed to know about his ideology, now they insist it tells us nothing at all about his ideology. “Crazy person attacks Republican Congresspeople: blame the crazy. Crazy person sends bombs to Democrats: blame the Republicans,” tweets right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, whose analysis was recirculated by Donald Trump Jr.
It is of course true that the overwhelming majority of Republicans are not violent. It is likewise true that nothing about conservative ideology or its program requires violent action. Nonetheless, the relationship between the two parties and violence is not symmetrical, and the fact that alleged bomber Cesar Sayoc had a strong identification with Trump and his partisan message is not a coincidence. The Republican Party encompasses an extremist fringe that nurtures violence in a way the Democratic Party does not.
Political violence — when it is attached to political ideology at all, as opposed to simple mental illness — is associated with Manichean, paranoid, illiberal thought. That is a description of a large and steadily growing wing of conservative politics. Elements of paranoid extremism resided in the very beginnings of the Goldwater movement, which took its inspiration from delusional yet wildly paranoid tracts such as “A Choice, Not an Echo” and “None Dare Call It Treason.” Sensible conservatives roll their eyes at this sort of nuttery, but by this point in history, such modes of delusional thought have gained such deep inroads in the party that purging them is a hopeless task.
Even figures as deranged as Limbaugh have long since found themselves outflanked by even more deranged minds like Alex Jones, who has received respectful attention from President Trump, himself an avid conspiracy theorist. Trump has praised a member of Congress for assaulting a reporter; pardoned ranchers who inspired a right-wing militia attack, the right-wing conspiracist Dinesh D’Souza, and lawless authoritarian racist Joe Arpaio; literally today, at an event in which he was attempting to project some measure of dignity and decorum, Trump invoked a far-right conspiracy theory by attacking George Soros as a “globalist” and chuckling appreciatively at an audience member shouting “Lock him up!”
The left certainly has illiberal, paranoid modes of thought. The difference is that the left-wing version resides outside the boundaries of two-party politics, because the Democratic Party is fundamentally liberal not radical. Coulter’s examples of “liberal” violence inadvertently bear this out: The Haymarket Square bombers were anarchists, and the Unabomber developed an idiosyncratic hatred of technology that did not connect to other nodes of left-wing politics. The street-fighting cult antifa lies outside of, and is primarily hostile to, Democratic politics. Left-wing violence from the 1960s likewise came out of radical groups who viewed the Democratic Party with contempt.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, has followed a course that has made its rhetoric amenable to extremism. Republican radicalism enabled the rise of a conspiratorial authoritarian president, and that president has expanded the bounds of the party’s following farther out to the fringe. It is getting harder and harder to distinguish the “normal” elements of conservatism from the “kook” parts. That some of those kooks would resort to violence is not an accident but a statistical likelihood. Trump’s party is a petri dish for diseased minds.