Alexandria Shooting Motive: Did Anti-Trump Rhetoric Inspire James Hodgkinson?

Updated | Three months before James Hodgkinson picked up a gun and targeted Republican members of a congressional baseball team as they practiced in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday, he signed a petition calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. And before the presidential election, he apparently volunteered for Bernie Sanders’s campaign and called for Hillary Clinton to cede the Democratic nomination to the senator.

Hodgkinson, a former home inspector from Belleville, Illinois, died from injuries he suffered during the shooting, Trump said in a televised statement. Five people who were playing baseball were hospitalized, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. A congressional staffer and two Capitol Police officers also were injured.

Since the election in November, lawmakers and others have claimed that Trump’s rise and rhetoric has “emboldened” people on the right to attack those on the left and commit hate crimes. But conservatives say they are under physical threat too. Because of Hodgkinson’s apparent political leaning, conservative commentators are saying Wednesday’s incident is part of a violent trend by some on the left that does not get as much attention.

Related: Inside the black bloc protest strategy at Berkeley

U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis told Fox News that before the shooting on Wednesday, a man had asked him whether those playing baseball were Republicans or Democrats. It was not clear if that man was Hodgkinson. The gunman also volunteered for Sanders, The Washington Post reported, citing an acquaintance from St. Louis named Charles Orear. “I met him on the Bernie trail in Iowa, worked with him in the Quad Cities area,” Orear said, referring to an area in Illinois and Iowa.

Records show that Hodgkinson registered as a Democrat in the last three presidential primaries, and that for primaries between 1992 and 2008 he did not register with any party. He voted last November, the records show. He once wrote in a letter to the editor of the Belleville News-Democrat, “We need to vote all Republicans out of Congress.”

“There’s all this violence, and it’s happening on the left,” says Mike Cernovich, a right-wing figure who posts about such incidents on Twitter, “and the media coverage is pretty much nonexistent.” He points to the firebombing of a GOP office in North Carolina last October, aggressive tactics by protesters at Trump rallies and attacks on speakers and faculty members on college campuses.

Even as details about Wednesday’s shooting and the suspect develop, Cernovich says he sees the incident as a continuation of such left-on-right violence, given that the suspect apparently targeted Republicans. “This is exactly what happens when you normalize political violence,” he says, citing comedian Kathy Griffin’s photo with a fake severed head resembling Trump’s and a production of Julius Caesar that depicts the assassination of a character who resembles Trump.

“The media needs to cover the violence that’s happening on the left with the same level of scrutiny and vigor that they cover the supposed violence and rhetoric of Trump and Trump supporters,” he says.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a Trump ally, told Fox News that Wednesday’s shooting belongs to a pattern of “an increasing intensity of hostility on the left.” Far-right outlet Infowars called the shooter a “leftist gunman” and the shooting a “media-inspired terror attack.” Tomi Lahren, another conservative figure, tweeted, “How long till the Left blames guns? If Dems were targeted it would all be about ‘Trump’s mean rhetoric.’ Double standard party at work.”

06_14_James_Hodgkinson_Sanders_rhetoric James Hodgkinson shot at House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and other members of Congress while they were playing baseball on June 14. Conservative commentators, including Newt Gingrich, are blaming the incident on anti-Trump rhetoric. Social Media via REUTERS

This is not the first time that conservatives have pointed to violence from the left as evidence of a double standard at a time when people, including lawmakers, have blamed Trump for a rise in reported hate crimes. Among the incidents conservatives cite are the killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last July.

Following the Dallas shooting, conservative lawyer Larry Klayman and a Dallas police sergeant filed a lawsuit against Black Lives Matter, President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others, accusing them of “inciting and causing serious bodily injury or death to police officers and other law enforcement persons.” A judge dismissed the case on June 2, and the plaintiffs have filed an appeal.

People on the right have also condemned attacks by the Antifa (anti-fascist) movement and black bloc activists, including one in February at the University of California, Berkeley. In that case, masked protesters on the political left set fires and smashed windows, and one pepper-sprayed a Trump supporter as she spoke with a reporter.

“I, a transgender Jew, don’t have a problem with violence against fascists,” Neil Lawrence, a Berkeley student who participated, told Newsweek at the time. The incident, and subsequent ones involving the black bloc strategy, in which demonstrators dress in all black in order to mask their identities, have led to suggestions that an “alt-left” is rising.

Not everyone agrees that Wednesday’s attack was purely political. Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, says it is unusual for someone to commit such an attack because of a political motivation. “That’s actually quite rare, in the sense that they are attacking the congressman because that congressman or woman represents a political ideology or politics that they despise,” he says.

Often a person targets a single lawmaker because of a specific piece of legislation by that person or because of a personal grievance, he says. He points to a case during the Reconstruction era when a Northern member of Congress was killed in Arkansas for occupying what locals believed was a seat that should have gone to a Southerner.

Mental health also often plays a bigger role than politics does in such attacks, according to Engel. “Sometimes the person has some political language that might be used to justify their action, but the more important underlying factor is, simply, insanity,” he says.

He cites Jared Loughner, the gunman who shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people at a Tucson, Arizona, supermarket in 2011, then initially pleaded insanity, and John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

“There are hundreds of millions of people who have political Facebook pages or political commentary on their Facebook pages,” Engel says. “For somebody to pick up a rifle and do something about it is so rare that it is actually a demonstration that the person is first and foremost not dealing with reality in the same way as the rest of us.”

This article has been updated to include information about James Hodgkinson’s voting record.

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