Between September 11, 2001 and March 2014, right-wing extremists killed 34 people in America. If you count the three Jewish community members Frazier Glenn Cross killed in Kansas City before screaming "Heil Hitler" as police arrested him this past April, the tally jumps to 37. And it hits 40 when you add the two policemen and lone civilian who died this weekend when Jerad and Amanda Miller launched their Las Vegas revolution. The officers were eating lunch at a pizza restaurant, treading on no one, when they were shot dead and draped in a Gadsden flag. The civilian at the nearby Wal-Mart, Joseph Wilcox, was armed and ready to put an end to Jerad's rampage, but didn't know Amanda was armed as well. Turns out a good guy with a gun is the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, unless the bad guy's wife happens to have a gun, too.
The above figures are based on a tally maintained by experts at the New America Foundation. They array their analysis in a way that makes the implicit point that, for all our fretting about jihadi extremism, it's been less deadly in the U.S. since 9/11 than domestic terrorism, but that neither problem is particularly dangerous.
And it's true. There are 320-or-so million people in the United States, over 30 million more than lived here on September 11, 2001. Forty people isn't very many. Among causes of death in the U.S., right-wing violence must rank near the bottom.
But 40 people is more than zero people, which is the number that have been killed by left-wing extremists over the same stretch. As NAF's Peter Bergen wrote recently, "although a variety of left wing militants and environmental extremists have carried out violent attacks for political reasons against property and individuals since 9/11, none have been linked to a lethal attack."
Something must account for the difference. The violent right in America might not be a huge threat to public safety, but it still has a body count.
I'm inclined to believe the answer is written into the DNA of conservative extremism—that deeply conservative people are more politically tribal than others, and more inclined to confront cognitive dissonance by entertaining conspiracy theories and cocooning themselves in communities with like-minded true believers. I'm peddling an incredibly amateur sociology. But if I'm right, it implies that the reactionary nature of the American far right is the cause, not the consequence, of the observable differences in tone and substance between conservative and liberal rhetoric in the U.S.. Or of the vast differences between liberal and conservative American media.
And if that's the case, it probably wouldn't change much if Republican politicians became a bit more measured in their attacks on Democrats, Democratic policies, liberalism and so on. If anything, it's probably more accurate to say that Republicans engage in overheated, apocalyptic rhetoric to remain in good standing with these fixed elements of their political coalition than that they actively engender the underlying beliefs.
But to the extent that they have any control at all over the temperature on the right, the responsible thing to do is turn it down. That we can't accurately attribute any particular hurricane to the warming of the planet likewise doesn't absolve us of our responsibility to emit fewer heat-trapping gases.
And here's where I expect conservatives will respond by pointing out that Democrats have said totally outrageous stuff, too! But I don't think it's bathing the left in glory to say that the basic narrative Democrats propound about the right is far less provocative than the fire-stoking that Republicans engage in.
The basic story Democrats tell voters about Republicans and their donors is that they're plutocrats who don't really care about poor and middle class people, and are deeply beholden to an increasingly aged, increasingly resentful white base.
The GOP's story about Democrats is a bit more diffuse, but it tends toward invocations of tyranny. They'll take your (money/guns/freedoms/lives). Pick your poison.
When Democrats tried to pass an extremely modest gun law in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Ted Cruz said the real goal was "a federal list of every gun owner in America." When Democrats more recently proposed a constitutional amendment to effectively reverse the consequences of the Citizens United ruling, he said they were trying to "repeal the First Amendment."
Paul Waldman cited Senator Ron Johnson, who lamented last year that the survival of the Affordable Care Act had denied the country its "last shred of freedom." But you could just as easily cite the "death panel" smear from the beginning of Obama's presidency or the martyrization of Cliven Bundy just a few weeks ago, and a dozen other misbegotten efforts in between. If I bought into all of it, I'd probably take certain paranoid suspicions of the American far right more seriously.
As it happens, Jerad Miller was one of Bundy's avengers, until he was booted for being a convicted felon. A bunch of people have pored through his Facebook page already, to learn more about his political leanings. For whatever reason, I was most interested in seeing what he'd posted just before and after the 2012 election. I learned, among other things, that he was a Ron Paul-ite, who supported libertarian Gary Johnson over Republican Mitt Romney. He bought in to all of the familiar conspiracy theories—the really fringe stuff, but also things like Benghazi, which Republican politicians continue to inflame to this day. He likewise believed that, "[O]bama is forcing hobby lobby to pay for abortions." His wife once worked there. He worried she "may not have a job soon. thanks all who voted for him. idiots, i cant wait for your food stamps to get taken away in major austerity programs that will be affecting you soon."
If you believe that law enforcement and IRS officers are agents of a fascist takeover of the country, then your misapprehensions about Benghazi, or the Affordable Care Act, welfare, and various forms of contraception probably aren't your biggest concern. But your paranoia has been well fed anyhow. And needlessly so.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.