American Tea Party and Republican leaders were quick to disassociate themselves from the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Arizona this weekend. And indeed, there is no evidence that the shooter is directly or indirectly associated with them.
But Tea Partiers and Republicans are right to worry about a public backlash, in the United States and throughout the democratic world, in the wake of this tragedy. And if there is any justice they will get that backlash, since it is richly deserved.
Their brand of right-wing populism – their appeal to unreason, to hatred, to anger, and their dance with violence (just as the previous generation of right-wing American populists danced with white racism) – invites what happened in Arizona on Saturday.
Tea Party avatar Sarah Palin uploads a map of the United States, with gun sights on targeted progressive legislators, including the congresswoman now fighting for her life. Does that mean Sarah Palin is responsible for the shooting of Ms. Giffords? We can't say that. Did Ms. Palin invite violence aimed at Ms. Giffords? Ms. Palin and her friends danced with it – just as Richard Nixon and many other American politicians of his generation danced with racist code words.
In much of the United States in the midterm elections this November, this game produced the response Ms. Palin and the corporate interests riding the wave hoped for. And then some piece of that electrical pulse of hatred found its way into the shriveled soul of a madman in Arizona.
Why do populist right-wingers need to play these games? Because they can't defend their program on its merits.
Help for the poor through tax giveaways to the rich. Economic security by breaking people's pensions. Fiscal responsibility by bankrupting the state. Jobs by promoting economic recklessness that has produced a global economic crisis. A better society by promoting gross income disparity. Double and triple the police and prison apparatus to deal with a crime rate that has long been in decline. Better health care by making it available only to those who can afford it. Getting the state out of people's lives by imposing narrow religious views in the schools. Legislating responsibly by abdicating the legislative and budget process to corporate lobbyists. Peace by warmongering.
None of the central goals of American populist right-wingers hold up in rational debate. So a smokescreen is required. Take our country back! Respect the constitution! And... lock and load!
It's had a good run in the past two years, this latest manifestation of right-wing unreason in the United States. But perhaps this is the moment its real nature stands revealed. Like all right-wing populism, that is something it cannot survive.
Update Paul Krugman writes a compelling piece on the issue in The New York TImes here.