The year was 2009 and Nancy Pelosi had an emotional message to deliver to Republicans: The GOP’s increasingly extreme rhetoric was bound to incite violence.
“I have concerns about some of the language that is being used because I saw this myself in the late 70s in San Francisco,” said the then-speaker of the House, referencing the infamous assassination of a city councilman and mayor in the city.
“This kind of rhetoric was very frightening and … it created a climate in which violence took place,” she said. “I wish that we would all, again, curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements that are made.”
Republican leader Paul Ryan might be ready to give the same warning now to her.
The shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise and four other men shook the capital to its foundations this week, prompting bipartisan calls for lawmakers to re-embrace civility and bridge their ideological differences.
But even amid the moment of political Kumbaya, a pointed criticism emerged from Republicans: They accused Democrats of fomenting the violence after reports surfaced that the shooter — James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill. — was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Hodgkinson wrote often about his hate of the GOP, and, to these Republicans, his decision to take violent action was implicitly encouraged by the Democrats’ unrelenting attacks against President Donald Trump.
Suddenly, it’s Democrats — paired with a political base that hates the new president — who are on the defensive about their rhetoric. And even for a party that believes deeply in opposing Trump, the shootings are spurring reflection about how its leaders talk about the president — and whether they need to be more careful with their words.
“This is a powder keg right now, so everyone in authority has to be very careful with the words the say,” said Nina Turner, a former Democratic state senator from Ohio and a high-profile Sanders supporter.
Turner said she even though she believes earnestly in opposing the president, she thought the Democratic Party had become too personal and too harsh in its criticism. As she put it, the party had “taken away the modicum of humanity” of the president.
“People have to stop making this about Trump as a human being, as hard as that might be for some people, and just be hard as hell on the issues,” she said.
Democratic leaders during Trump’s presidency have never encouraged their supporters to take violent action, and all of them universally condemned Wednesday’s shooting while re-affirming the need for comity in the tragedy’s aftermath. Sanders, whose presidential campaign Hodgkinson volunteered for, also delivered a speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate, saying he was “sickened by this despicable act” and adding that “real change can only come about through nonviolent action.”
Hodgkinson had multiple encounters with law enforcement before Tuesday’s shooting: a domestic attack that included shooting a shotgun, a drunk crash and just a few months ago he was told to stop shooting in the woods near his home
Not all Republicans are satisfied their counterparts have done enough to calm their seething base. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Republican Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia tweeted a link to a story about comedian Kathy Griffin holding the bloody, severed head made to look like the president.
“The left provokes this behavior,” he said.
Other Republicans said the criticism of Trump had crossed a line to a dangerous obsession among Democrats, one that implicitly encouraged violence.
“You’ve had a series of things that send signals that it’s OK to hate Trump, it’s OK to think of Trump in violent terms, it’s OK to consider assassinating Trump,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House and informal Trump adviser, during an interview on Fox News.
The line between appropriate political resistance and dangerous rhetoric is sometimes difficult to draw. When Pelosi warned Republicans to “curb our enthusiasm” in 2009, it was near the height over the health care debate over the Affordable Care Act, a contentious piece of legislation that some Republicans said would bring an end to freedom in the country.
Republicans defended the use of that type of over-the-top rhetoric as an appropriate response to a bill they despised. Similarly, Democrats say their own harsh criticisms of Trump are an appropriate response to the unprecedented actions he has taken in office, including his sharp criticisms of the judicial system, the media, and his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.
Democrats need to be allowed to criticize the president as they see fit, they argue.
“If we can’t call attention to undemocratic action, that’s not good,” said Jane Sanders, the wife of the independent senator from Vermont, during an interview on CNN. “We need to have free speech, we need to have spirited discussions, we need to not make it personal or demonize people.
Many Democrats also believe the kind rhetoric used against Obama and his party was more severe. They say that if anyone is encouraging violent action, it is the president himself, who last year said he’ll pay the legal fees of supporters who remove protestors from his campaign rallies.
To some Democrats, however, blaming Trump doesn’t mean their party can’t do better.
“We have an obligation to point out what his policies are doing for everyday American people,” Turner said. “We have an obligation to do that, but we also have an obligation for people to understand we are talking about the policy positions and not trying to strip this man of his humanity. It’s hard, but we can do both.”