The pivot from police incident to politics happened rapidly
President Donald Trump made no mention of politics in a brief statement
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe mentioned that "there are too many guns on the streets," a common theme for gun control advocates in the wake of attacks like these
The shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise and four others at a baseball practice for Republican members of Congress on Wednesday morning in Alexandria, Virginia, was always going to quickly turn to politics.
Rep. Chris Collins, one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent congressional supporters, insisted that the shooting was directly tied to anti-Trump rhetoric from the left. “I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric,” Collins said on a local radio station in upstate New York. “The rhetoric has been outrageous – the finger-pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters. Really, then, you know, some people react to things like that. They get angry as well. And then you fuel the fires.”
Collins also said in the same interview he would have his gun “in my pocket from this day forward.”
That pivot from police incident to politics happened rapidly around 11:15 a.m., when CNN confirmed that the alleged shooter was James T. Hodgkinson of Illinois. A quick scan of his social media presence – Facebook and Twitter – suggested that he was strongly opposed to Trump and was a supporter of the 2016 presidential candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who ran as a Democrat.
Hodgkinson also apparently volunteered for Sanders campaign in Iowa during the 2016 campaign. Sanders condemned the shooting in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.
“I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign,” Sanders said in a statement. “I am 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.”
Hodgkinson’s apparent Facebook profile page is an image of Sanders as “Uncle Sam,” and one recent post from June 12 carries this message from Hodgkinson: “I want to say Mr. President for being an Asshole, you are Truly the Biggest Ass Hole We Have Ever Had in the Oval Office.”
The Belleville News-Democrat, the local paper in the community where Hodgkinson reportedly lived, showed a photo of him holding a “Tax the Rich” sign in a protest outside a local post office. The newspaper described Hodgkinson this way:
“The shooter was James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, who belonged to a number of anti-Republican groups, including one called ‘Terminate the Republican Party.’”
Police officials would not comment on any motive for the shooting or whether Hodgkinson was targeting Republicans. But CNN’s Dana Bash reported that the shooting was deliberate and not a random act.
Trump made no mention of politics in a brief statement just before noon eastern time. “We are strongest when we are unified and we work together for the common good,” Trump said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both gave speeches of unity to applause on the floor of the House of Representatives.
“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Ryan said.
None of that stopped some conservatives from concluding that Hodgkinson was aiming to injure Republicans specifically, and that he was driven by a liberal culture that glorifies violence against GOPers.
Harlan Hill, a Trump-supporting pundit, tweeted this just after 9 a.m. eastern time: “Events like today are EXACTLY why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of our President.” Donald Trump Jr., the son of the president, retweeted Hill’s comment – adding “This.”
Hill’s reference is to a controversial production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” by the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park. In it, the Caesar character bears a striking resemblance to Trump. Obviously, if you know history, Caesar is assassinated by his peers, including his best friend Brutus.
Hill was far from the only conservative to cast the shooting in a very political light.
“NBC mentions shooter’s social media page, BUT WON’T TELL US WHAT IT SAYS. (Bernie Sanders & Democratic Socialism),” tweeted Ann Coulter.
“A @BernieSanders supporter did shooting spree: James T. Hodgkinson who pushed a http://Change.org petition to appt indep counsel.” tweeted Laura Ingraham.
“This could be the first political rhetorical terrorist attack,” Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, who was at the practice, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar Wednesday morning before Hodgkinson had been publicly identified as the alleged shooter.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, appearing on Fox News, called the shootings “part of a pattern” and blamed “an increasing intensity of hostility on the left.”
He said conservative college students are afraid they’ll be beaten on campus.
“The intensity is very real, whether it’s a so-called comedian holding up the President’s head covered in blood, or right here in New York City, a play that shows the President being assassinated, or it’s Democratic leading national politicians using vulgarity because they can’t find any common language to talk,” he said.
And Michael Caputo, a former Trump adviser, was even more blunt in an interview with a Buffalo radio station. “For nine months, Democratic Party leaders have lied, regularly calling me and my friends traitors, so forgive me if I’m not more tender with their karma in Alexandria,” Caputo said.
Others were less direct in tying Hodgkinson’s apparent politics to this incident but did suggest that that the partisan political atmosphere clearly had something to do with the shooting.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, echoed Davis’ sentiment. “I do think that things have become very partisan and very hardened in the country today,” he said. “We have to work together to get things done and we’re the greatest nation in the world and there has been too much raw discourse today that is pulling people apart.”
But McAuliffe also mentioned that “there are too many guns on the streets,” a common theme for gun control advocates in the wake of attacks like these involving guns.
Rep. Mo Brooks, the Alabama Republican and another one of the people at the baseball field when the shooting happened, dismissed the idea that he might rethink his staunch support of the 2nd Amendment in the wake of this shooting.
“The Second Amendment right to bear arms is to ensure that we always have a Republic,” Brooks said. “What we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly.”
Georgia Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Republican from Georgia who was on the field when the shooting happened, suggested that members of Congress should be allowed to carry guns. “I think we need to look at some reciprocity for members here but we also need to look at security details,” Loudermilk told CNN’s Ashley Killough.
Until we know more about Hodgkinson’s motive – assuming we can find it out since he has now died from wounds he suffered – it’s difficult to reach hard and fast conclusions about why, allegedly, he did what he did.
But a man with a gun shooting at members of Congress will always be political. That Hodgkinson was an outspoken critic of Trump makes it even harder to keep away from politics.
The question now is where the political debate goes from here. Does the focus land on better protecting members of Congress in public? Tamping down the viciousness of political rhetoric? Gun control? Something else?