There was still a chill in the early morning air when the team gathered at Eugene Simpson Park for batting practice, and for whatever camaraderie this contentious group could muster. These were Republican congressmen, and they were about to do something good, out in the open before a friendly crowd. The game they were preparing for would benefit children and literacy, while costing the taxpayers nothing.
Practically unnoticed, a slightly unkempt, doughy middle-aged white man with close-cropped sandy hair and a scraggly, salt and pepper beard, emerged from his home in a white van parked on the edge of the field. Gesturing at the gathering players, he asked a passerby, “Are they Republicans or Democrats?” In Alexandria, Virginia, home to powerful politicos of every stripe, this was not a strange thing to ask.
“Republicans,” the stranger reported. “They are practicing for a charity game with the Democrats tomorrow.”
The man nodded, and the stranger moved on. The man returned to his van to retrieve an assault rifle, and for good measure, he pocketed a sidearm. Calmly he carried his weapons to the edge of the third-base dugout, where he began to fire on the weekend Republican athletes.
He was an astonishingly poor marksman. Of the over fifty rounds he got off before he was felled by return fire from a congressman’s bodyguards, most sprayed buildings and vehicles flanking the field. Only five hit people; only two inflicted life-threatening wounds. The first was Majority Whip Stephen Scalise, whose leadership rank had brought a protective squad capitol police at the scene. The other two were members of the bodyguard unit itself, whose were return fire probably averted a bloodbath
Rep. Scalise was grievously wounded in the pelvis and lower abdomen. Matt Mika, a former congressional staffer and now an agricultural lobbyist, was hit multiple times, including life-threatening wounds to the chest. The others with injuries, less serious though still significant, included staffer Zachary Barth and two members of the bodyguard detail, David Bailey and Crystal Griner. The gunman, James T. (“Tom”) Hutchinson of Belleville, Illinois, died of wounds sustained in the gunfight. His was the only fatality that morning.
Almost immediately, the press discovered, in Hutchinson’s social media, his strong left-leaning political passion, and his fierce opposition to President Trump. “Trump is a Traitor,” he posted on March 22. “Trump Has Destroyed our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.” Democrats, too, came under his rhetorical fire. He was a fierce critic of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, branding her with the worst epithet he could muster: “Republican Lite.” His cover photo depicted the Democratic Socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. His profile picture was of the American flag, with the caption “Democratic Socialism explained in three words: We the People.”
Sen. Sanders immediately took to the airwaves and Twitter to distance himself from this heinous act. In a statement, he said he “was sickened by this despicable act. …Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” he said. “Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.”
Speaker Paul Ryan tried raising the issue above the fractious tribalism of Congress. “We are united in our shock and anguish.” He intoned from the floor of the House. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”
For once, I find wisdom in the Speaker’s words. I wish I could be confident he meant them as I took them. It was indeed an attack on all of them, not because they were Republicans, but because they were Washington politicians. Now it is time, not to pretend that this was not a political act.
“You know” Rep. Ryan said, ”every day, we come here to test and challenge each other. We feel so deeply about the things we fight for and believe in. At times, our emotions can get the best of us. We are all imperfect. But we do not shed our humanity when we enter this chamber.”
I would suggest that Mr. Hutchinson’s heinous action was was crazy, but it also an act of political desperation brought on at least in part because it felt to him that the people who enter the House of Representatives, and the Senate and Statehouse as well, do in fact leave their humanity in the cloakroom.
Repealing the Affordable Care Act, which is funded with a sharply progressive tax that costs the wealthy the most though they directly benefit the least, satisfies the plutocrats but feeds the seething anger of the middle class and the poor. Replacing it with legislation that will result in tens of millions of people, mostly disabled, elderly, or poor, losing the ability to
pay for the care that is keeping them alive today, adds injury to insult. To do so in such a rush that even the lawmakers do not know the true costs of the legislation (perhaps because they fear that knowledge of the real cost might spark a conflagration of opposition) lays bare the contempt the officeholders hold for the voters who elected them. These are not acts of compassionate men.
Images of politicians locking their doors to their constituents, or hiding on rooftops to avoid crowds, only reinforce the schism that their inhumanity has created, and amplify the anger that issues from the rift. The president is the very exemplar of contempt, for the courts, the congress, and the mob at his political base. For openness. For truth.
I am not condoning political violence, but I think I can see whence it arises.
Inhumanity is not the exclusive province of Republicans. Mrs. Clinton ran as a populist but was funded primarily by the corporate and financial sectors, and liked to talk about her foreign policy experience and her gender rather than domestic economic policies where her hypocrasy was more likely to show. Many wondered whether she might be more beholden to the plutocracy than to the people. After all, she had amassed millions in personal wealth while working in the public sphere, and made more money addressing Goldman Sachs behind closed doors for half an hour than they made from half a decade of hard work. In the general election, both candidates ran less on issues than on disparaging each other: “crooked Hillary” and “basket of deplorables.”
As a blow against American democracy, the DNC’s rigging of the primary system to stop the surge of their most popular candidate from upsetting their dynastic system was on par with the Republicans’ gerrymandering of the South to cement their hegemony there. The Democrats’ ramming through the ACA without a single Republican vote lost, and their abolition of the filibuster in executive nominations before the Senate, led to voter disillusionment that lost them their majority in the Senate. The Republicans doubled down when they banished the filibuster from Supreme Court nominations, which the Democrats had spared.
The president, a seeming stranger to transparency and truth, promised to return a strong America to its middle-class roots, and instead delivered a government larded with billionaires, generals, and disestablishmentarians.
In all of this, the Little Guy, like Tom Hutchinson, was left out, not only of the negotiation, but also seemingly of any consideration at all. On social media, and on sidewalks in front of federal buildings in Illinois, while he writhed and moaned in frustration, but nobody seemed to notice.
If his anger surprises you, you have not been paying attention.
Political violence, rhetorical and real, is becoming the norm in America today. The violent rhetoric promulgated on the internet spills over into violence on the streets. Riots triggered by racial incidence have occurred in Maryland, Missouri, and California. Mobs shouting support for free speech have shut down appearances by controversial speakers in California and Vermont, where a professor was assaulted for simply moderating the event. Candidates have been compelled to withdraw from elections because of death threats. Mass shootings have been used to praise Allah, to punish gay lifestyles, to push back at police violence, and now to protest Republican policy making in Congress.
To deny or ignore the political nature of this violence is to bury our heads in the sand. Worse yet is to use the violence to double-down on the political tribalism that is driving it. Our whole government has given itself over to a gooey mixture of partisanship and military-industrial complexity, which has oozed into the machinery of government and hardened there, like cement.
Our two political parties become drunk with power when they hold it, and overpowered with lust for it when they do not. In pursuit and defense of power, unholy alliances are forged with wealth, both domestic and foreign. In their relentless pursuit of power for its own sake, they have lost sight of this principle, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The government in Washington today is the results of a raggedy patchwork of elections that were subject to a host of perverse pressures. They have been gerrymandered, procedurally overwrought, steered by huge billows of cash from God knows where, distorted by slick Madison Avenue techniques and online social media corrals, and perhaps even hacked by foreign and corporate interests with nefarious intents. Many potential voters have lost faith in the system. They avoid the polls altogether. Many who do come vote not for what they believe in, but to stem an evil, if ill defined, tide they feel is swamping them.
Governments thus constituted do not have the consent of the governed. Their powers are not just. The populace feels this, and a lumbering discontent roams the land. Violence breaks out here and there.
There is an old joke that goes something like this: A traveler has a flat while driving past an insane asylum. As he tries to change tires, the lug nuts keep rolling into the ditch. A lunatic watches the man’s frustration as he fetches them from the mud. The lunatic has a suggestion: “Why don’t you put the lug nuts in the hub cap so they won’t roll away?” The traveler tries this, and it works. He says to the lunatic, “That was a good idea. I thought you were supposed to be crazy.” The lunatic, drawing himself up indignantly, replies, “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid!”
What Tom Hutchinson did was evil, yes, and it was crazy, but it was not irrational. Why are Republicans and Democrats alike getting death threats when they run for office? Why are the legislative and the executive branches mired to their axles in mud? Because politics has lost its humanity. The checks and balances that were the genius of the founding fathers, their loving and respectful gift to us, have been spurned because they are were awkward and inconvenient, not realizing that that very inconvenience was the tool that men like Calhoun used to build the compromises that made America great. They encourage majorities to respect the interests of minorities. We need them back.
“For all the noise and fury, we are a family,” says Paul Ryan, ironically if imperfectly quoting Macbeth’s reflection on life. (A more complete tweet would be: “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” An interesting reference, considering the state of Congress and the White House today. But I digress…)
Ryan went on to say (and this is the soul of his massage):
“These were our brothers and sisters in the line of fire. These were our brothers and sisters who ran into danger and saved countless lives.
“So before this House returns to its business, I want us to slow down and reflect, to think about how we are being tested right now. Because we are.
I ask each of you to join me in resolving to come together…to lift each other up…and to show the country—show the world—that we are one House. The people’s House—united in our humanity.
I really believe that, Mr. Speaker. Do you? Because if you do, slow down and reflect. Think of the common people who are every day exposed to gunfire because of firearms in the hands of felons and lunatics, with no bodyguard to protect them. Think of unarmed black men who fear for their lives when they are stopped for a failed tail light. Think of the police officers who fear for their lives because they don’t know the black man is unarmed. Think of those lying wounded in the street, who may become homeless if they get medical care they now suddenly need but cannot afford.
Continue to think about government being too big, about business being over-regulated, about taxes being too high and ill-distributed. You are right about those things, and the Left needs to accept them into the deliberations.
Think about the powerless, and how they can be empowered. Think about how power corrupts, and what to do about it.
Think about how, and why, you are being tested right now. Because you are. You have some serious soul-searching to do. So does the RNC. So does the President. So does each Democrat, and the DNC. So do all of the nameless bureaucrats who toil in the offices of the Capitol, the West Wing, The Pentagon, Langley, and Foggy Bottom.
The republic is broken, much as Madison predicted (in Federalist #10) that it would be if partisanship prevailed over public interest. You, Mr. Speaker, are among the few with the power set it right.
Power and leadership are not the same thing. Winning is more than just slyly passing your whole program intact. Leading is accepting (even embracing, if you can) the ideas of those with whom you disagree, while zealously promoting your own. Winning is adopting policy that serves the people over the party. Instead of fighting the checks and balances, embrace them as a source of your strength.
Be a leader instead of a power broker, and you will begin to quell the fires that are starting to consume us. You will become a hero, not just of the conservative caucus, but of all America. Do not do it for this reason, though; do it because it is the right thing to do. One of the lives you save may be your own.
I believe you when you say, “It is that humanity which will win the day. It always will.” Yes! You are my man. Let’s play ball!