Sadly, there was another mass shooting in America yesterday. Bad actors are attempting to blame the shooting on “transgender ideology” (which Elon Musk, among others, has been shamelessly propagating), an idea which is not only shameless but actively dangerous to our trans friends and family (I hope you’ll support them instead). But it reminded me of a similar, related and equally stupid idea that conservatives enjoy circulating to portray themselves as “responsible gun owners.”
After a mass shooting a few years ago, I recall a stupid meme making the rounds attributing literally every crime in American history to “left wing radicals” or “registered Democrats” (which they somehow consider an argument against gun control). This is the sort of absurd nonsense that’s obviously political mudslinging, offers no proof for its premise, and doesn’t bear serious thought; no one has bothered to supply evidence that, say, Charles Whitman or Adam Lanza were “registered Democrats.”
But I saw a variation of the meme shared by Hercules the Lesser, aka Kevin Sorbo, focusing on the history of political assassination in America which I found especially mendacious, because the motives of presidential assassins are generally well-known. Another version (reproduced above) uses Lincoln’s assassination to argue “If Democrats don’t get their way, they become dangerously violent.”
Such nonsense isn’t worth your time, or mine, but when canards like this are widely shared it’s useful to have a rebuttal handy. So, of the major assassins in American history through 1981, here is an ideological score card.
- Richard Lawrence, attempted to kill Andrew Jackson (below): an unemployed house painter suffering from mental illness, who attacked Jackson because he’d convinced himself that he was Richard III and Old Hickory had somehow blocked his ascent to the British throne. Jackson and others suspected a political motive, but none was discovered.
- John Wilkes Booth, killed Abraham Lincoln: while Booth was a proslavery Southern sympathizer, there’s no evidence that he was a Democrat. We do know that he was involved with the Know Nothing Party and even served as a delegate to an 1854 political convention in Maryland. Granted that it’s possible he supported Lincoln’s Democratic opponent in 1864, the Know Nothings having ceased to exist by that point, but it’s a real stretch to claim he was “registered Democrat.” In any case, he was hardly liberal, let alone “left wing,” and anyone claiming otherwise is a liar.
- Charles Guiteau, killed James Garfield (header): Guiteau was motivated by a combination of megalomania and a belief that Garfield owed him a political appointment. To the extent he had a political motive, Guiteau aligned himself with the Stalwarts, a conservative faction of the Republican Party that opposed civil service reform and believed more strongly in enforcing civil rights laws (as opposed to the “Half-Breeds”).
- Leon Czolgosz, killed William McKinley (below): Czolgosz was a self-proclaimed anarchist who claimed to have been incited to violence by the speeches of Emma Goldman. That said, Czolgosz’s fellow anarchists considered him an unstable kook, and one publication had even encouraged other anarchists to avoid him on suspicion of being a police spy. Czolgosz can be labeled left wing if you like, though he wasn’t the sort of leftist who was well-liked or even trusted by his peers.
- John Schrank, attempted to kill Theodore Roosevelt: believed the ghost of William McKinley instructed him to kill Roosevelt – by one account because McKinley blamed Roosevelt for his own death, according to another version because McKinley’s ghost didn’t want TR to break the third term tradition. Left wing?
- Giuseppe Zangara, attempted to kill Franklin Roosevelt (below): Zangara was a down-and-out immigrant with a generalized rage against American society. He did blame his plight on capitalists, which suggests a “left wing” motivation, but there’s no evidence that he had a coherent political ideology to speak of.
- Carl Austin Weiss, killed Huey Long: motivated by Long’s gerrymandering his father-in-law, a judge, out of a job. More personal than political.
- Griselio Torresola and Oscar Colazzo, attempted to kill Harry Truman: Puerto Rican nationalists associated with the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico (PNPR). While members of an independence movement can perhaps be considered “left wing” in the context of American empire, the PNPR was a broadly patriotic group that “included right-wingers on social questions, along with Marxists and Communist sympathizers as well as people from a wide range of social backgrounds and philosophical and religious orientations.”
- Lee Harvey Oswald, killed John F. Kennedy (below): Oswald was a self-proclaimed “Marxist-Leninist” and “hunter of fascists” who had previously defected to the Soviet Union, attempted to kill right wing demagogue Edwin Walker, and was heavily involved in leftist groups like the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Disregarding conspiracy theories and the possibility of a personal motivation, Oswald was clearly left wing, and so the meme-creators can finally chalk-up one victory…although killing a liberal Democrat perhaps doesn’t prove the case they’re trying to make.
- William Bradley (William 25X), Leon Davis and Talmadge Thayer, killed Malcolm X: believed to be members of a Nation of Islam mosque disenchanted with Malcolm’s break with the group. Assuming their guilt, it is a real stretch to claim the Nation of Islam is “left wing,” considering their nationalist, antisemitic ideology that’s caused them to be labeled a hate group. Various alternate theories have percolated over the years claiming that the assassination was arranged by Elijah Muhammad, the NPYD, the FBI or some combination thereof, based in large part on the FBI’s documented infiltration of the NOI. If you want to argue that J. Edgar Hoover was a leftist, be my guest.
- James Earl Ray, killed Martin Luther King (below): not only was Ray not left wing or a “registered Democrat,” he was part of the National States Rights Party, which was less a right wing party than an outright terrorist group. He was an outspoken racist and admirer of George Wallace, hoping to support his third party bid for the President. Again, there are ample conspiracy theories surrounding King’s death, but…see comments about Malcolm X, above.
- Sirhan Sirhan, killed Robert F. Kennedy: Sirhan was a Palestinian immigrant who claimed to murder Kennedy because of his outspoken support for Israel.
- Arthur Bremer, attempted to kill George Wallace (below): did not have a coherent political ideology, professed his wish to kill either Wallace or Richard Nixon from a desire to become famous. Probably the purest “lone gunman” assassin America’s produced, not surprising that he inspired Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.
- Samuel Byck, planned to kill Richard Nixon: Byck had a well-documented hatred for Nixon, although it appears to be a warped sense of personal grievance (he blamed Tricky Dick for sinking his various business ventures) than what we’d consider a “political” motive.
- Squeaky Fromme (below) and Sarah Jane Moore, attempted to kill Gerald Ford: Fromme was a member of the Manson Family, who are often associated with the counterculture although their professed ideology suggests they were more neo-Nazis pretending to be hippies. Moore was associated with the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was a radical left group, although it was discovered later that she was an FBI informant.
- John Hinckley Jr., attempted to kill Ronald Reagan: Hinckley’s motives were not political, as he seemed to act from a desire to impress actress Jodie Foster. But it’s worth noting that Hinckley had joined a neo-Nazi group in college, which expelled Hinckley for being unstable and violent. Left wing?
Of those listed above, three (Czolgosz, Oswald and Moore) could be safely considered “left wing.” You can add Zangara depending on how sincere you believe his politics were. But you also see several killers associated with far right causes and groups (eg. Booth, Ray, Hinckley), others with causes that don’t allow easy ideological identification (eg. Collazo and Torresola), and those motivated by personal grievances (Bremer, Byck) or delusions (Lawrence, Schenck).
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