FALSE EQUIVALENCY WATCH, CONT’D…. Following up on an item from yesterday, the drive continues to insist that “both sides” are equally to blame for rhetorical excesses and the toxicity of our discourse. Ross Douthat offers the latest evidence, arguing, “If overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder, then both parties would belong in the dock.”

This isn’t surprising, given that the media establishment appears obligated to always blame “both sides” for everything at all times. But as Paul Krugman reminded folks, “Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right.”

George Packer makes a related point today.

[T]here is no balance — none whatsoever. Only one side has made the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny the guiding spirit of its grassroots movement and its midterm campaign. Only one side routinely invokes the Second Amendment as a form of swagger and intimidation, not-so-coyly conflating rights with threats. Only one side’s activists bring guns to democratic political gatherings. Only one side has a popular national TV host who uses his platform to indoctrinate viewers in the conviction that the President is an alien, totalitarian menace to the country. Only one side fills the AM waves with rage and incendiary falsehoods. Only one side has an iconic leader, with a devoted grassroots following, who can’t stop using violent imagery and dividing her countrymen into us and them, real and fake. Any sentient American knows which side that is; to argue otherwise is disingenuous.

I have a hard time understanding how and why anyone would disagree with this. If political observers are being grown-ups about the discourse, this is obviously true.

But what’s especially interesting in the wake of Saturday’s events in Tucson is that much of the right is implicitly acknowledging the problem within its ranks. As Kevin Drum explained, “I don’t really blame conservatives for being upset at liberals trying pin the blame for the Giffords shooting on them, but the furious defensiveness of their counterattack says all that needs to be said about how uncomfortable they are with their own recent history.”

Exactly. At a certain level, conservatives are aware of the fact that they’ve been going too far for too long, and they seem quite concerned this week that the light will shine on them in a very unflattering way. It’s why they’re not only making ridiculous efforts to paint Jared Lee Loughner as some kind of liberal, they’re also hoping to avoid the entire conversation about rhetorical excesses in the political discourse altogether.

On Sunday, for example, when asked about Sarah Palin’s crosshairs, Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) concluded on CNN, “I think the way to get away from it is for you not to be talking about it.” For her part, Palin has practically been in hiding the past few days.

It’s as if a deliberate strategy that paid electoral dividends but hurt the country is catching up with the right, all at once. It’s likely the right has a justifiable fear: that the public will pause to look at a bigger picture — of the mainstreaming of Republican extremism, of violence-related campaign rhetoric, of hate-talk in GOP media — and see just how ugly it is.

But if they’re looking for a coherent defense, “both sides” isn’t going to cut it. In Democratic circles, liberal extremists can’t get any establishment attention at all. Members of Congress won’t return their phone calls or even be seen in public with them. On the right, however, there’s practically nothing a right-wing extremist can say or do to be exiled from polite company.*

There’s a clear and impermeable line between the progressive mainstream and the left fringe. The line between the Republican Party/conservative movement and the far-right fringe barely exists. Whereas Dems kept the fringe at arm’s length, Republicans embrace the fringe with both arms.

Both sides have nutjobs; only one side thinks their nutjobs are sane.

* edited for clarity

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.