The Vitriol In Our National Bloodstream, and The Right's Refusal To See It

Abby Zimet

The Vitriol Vitriol, by Marty Kaplan

“Clarabelle Dopenik.”  That’s what one wit on the popular conservative Web site
called Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County, Arizona sheriff who turns 75
this week.  Elected continuously since 1980, he is the public face of
the investigation into the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)
and 19 others. He is also, according to bloggers on that site, “an
incompetent unhinged sonofabitch” and “a jerk” “using this tragedy for
baseless, cheap political shots.”

Sheriff Dupnik’s crime was decrying

“the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out
from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business….
When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that
comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government—the
anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to
be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the
capital…. People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol
we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of
doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without

The problem with Sheriff Dupnik’s calling out vitriol, blogged one
conservative, was that it was actually “calling out Rush, Glen[n], Sean
and Fox!!!!!”  Dupnik was, wrote another, “inciting violence accusing
Rush, tea parties, Palin, and Republicans of bigotry and murder.”

What threatened the right the most was losing control of the national
political narrative.  Until the slayings in the Safeway parking lot,
the master story had been the triumphant G.O.P. sweeping into Congress
to repeal “the job-killing health care bill.”  But as of Saturday, the
new story connected the dots between the inflammatory rhetoric of
McCain/Palin events in 2008, the ugly confrontations at congressional
town halls in the summer of 2009, the “lock and load” cackling of the
2010 campaign – and the cultural climate of the Tucson murders.  Within
the space of a few hours, the story had been transformed from a revenge
narrative (Obama brought low) to a soul-searching meta-narrative: How
has our society come to this season in hell, and what must be done to
heal us?

The right’s panic about this shift was palpable.  Wrote one blogger
on the day of the shooting, “Right now, I would be interested to see the
smart response from Republicans.  If I was John Boehner, I would be in
Arizona. As a speaker of the house, he needs to be there and meet the
family before Obama goes to Arizona and gives a big speech to change the
topic of the nations [sic]. Next 24 hrs is crucial till Glenn Beck and
Rush come to air on Monday.”


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But there was no need to wait for Glenn and Rush to come to their
narrative’s rescue., a site widely read by journalists and
politicians, soon reported
that Sheriff Dupnik had “established himself as one of the leading
liberal voices in a state that boasts only a handful… Local
conservatives are quickly spinning his comments as those of a
partisan.”  The headline of the Politico piece—“Liberal Ariz. sheriff
Clarence Dupnik sees cause of violence”—eliminated any daylight between
those local Republican spinners and the Beltway media channeling them. 
With Dupnik branded a liberal, the troubling thought that American
public discourse had taken a wrong turn had been reduced to
garden-variety lefty partisanship.

A New York Times columnist found another way to denature
Sheriff Dupnik’s condemnation of vitriol.  He wrote that political
leaders who cry “tyranny” and “socialism” aren’t trying to incite
hysteria; rather, they’re “so amused with their own verbal flourishes
and the ensuing applause, that – like the bloggers and TV hosts to which
they cater – they seem to lose their hold on the power of words.” 
Vitriol is theater, a reality show with a studio audience.  Rush is just
an entertainer, Glenn is just a rodeo clown and the pols are just
playing to the peanut gallery.  Cut these guys some slack.  Hyperbole’s
great for everyone’s ratings.  Who can blame them for getting carried

If this tragedy is going to be a teachable moment, the lesson won’t
be found by determining whose vitriol is warranted.  It will be found
instead in what the vitriol is actually about.  And that, as Sheriff
Dupnik nailed it, is “tearing down the government.”

In the 1970s, the “sovereign citizen movement”
was still a paranoid fringe.  “Its adherents,” explains the
Anti-Defamation League, believed that “virtually all existing government
in the United States is illegitimate and they seek to ‘restore’ an
idealized, minimalist government that never actually existed.”  In the
decades since, this right-wing anarchism was domesticated and became
mainstream.  Today it demonizes the federal government, federal
programs, public employees, taxes and regulation.  It accords scriptural
authority to the Constitution, but it is in denial about the powers
that charter assigns to the central government.  It is blind to the
“common welfare” that “we the people” task the government to promote,
maintaining instead that the patriots who won our revolution wrote a
document whose sole purpose was to protect freedom from the
encroachments of the loathed central state.

In truth, American government is a miraculous equilibrium between
individual freedom and mutual responsibility, the one and the many, the
local and the national, the personal and the public.  The Constitution
isn’t holy writ; it’s a living document whose text and meaning have
evolved through the centuries.  “Government is the problem,” said Ronald
Reagan.  He was wrong.  The problem is bad government, and the job of every generation is to make it work better, not to drive a stake through its heart. 

Killing government is the mission of an assassin.  The vitriol in our
national bloodstream is the crackpot notion that killing government is
the mission of the rest of us.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media
and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication &
Journalism.  Reach him at

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