The dangerous lure of political violence
JUST DOWN THE street from the Reason o?ces in D.C., protesters recently built a guillotine ,No necks were harmed that night; it was not completely functional. But they did it facing Amazon founder Je? Bezos’ home, and the message was clear: While we aren’t going to do violence to you right now, we need you to know we believe capitalist billionaires like you are so dreadful that some violence might, in fact, be justi?ed. Another iteration of the guillotine had popped up a couple weeks before in the front of the White House, together with similar consequences for the president and his allies.
The question, which has taken on increasing significance as Election Day draws near, is how seriously (or actually ) to take such threats.
The best-case scenario is that what we’re seeing from the streets is basically LARPing. If you do not understand what LARPing is: Congratulations. I bet that the parties you got invited to in high school were fun! It stands for”live action role playing,” along with also the most frequent manifestation is a small group of costumed nerds staging some kind of simulated combat, frequently at a campus quadrangle or public playground.
Like the guillotinesmiths of Kalorama, the lefty protesters of Seattle and Portland–dressed in activist goth chic and ostentatiously practicing maneuvers with shields–are searching to trigger disgust and dread in people who disagree with their aims or strategies, and boy is it functioning. The same is true of the Unite the Right marchers who turned up in Charlottesville three years ago and afterwards in the Paci?c Northwest to provoke fear and intimidate their opponents while sporting matching polo shirts and wielding tiki torches.
“So far, this radical playacting has been more annoying than frightening,” Cathy Young writes in this month’s cover story, due to the events leading up to France’s Reign of Terror with an eye toward the parallels to the present day (page 18). “It’s about trolling, not killing, the enemy. But it signals an embrace of bloodthirsty rhetoric–and of ideological homage to one of history’s bloodier leftist dictatorships.”
THERE ARE REASONS to believe that the situation in American cities can take a more deadly turn, however. For one thing, it did in Charlottesville, when counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed. And it has in Portland, in which Reason contributor Nancy Rommelmann has covered the monthslong con?ict between the antifa”black bloc” as well as the many right-leaning factions that oppose it. The activists in Portland have been active attempting, mostly without success, to set ?re to various government buildings downtown.
Failing that, they settle for dumpsters.
However there were repeated clashes, not just between the protesters and law enforcement but also between rival activist factions, including the now-infamous right-wing Proud Boys. At the end of August, these tensions culminated in the killing of Aaron”Jay” Danielson by a deeply troubled man who identi?ed as antifa.
The actions of this shooter, writes Rommelmann, are”a symptom of what happens when a movement gets such a glow that it attracts individuals prepared to carry things to the next level. For many folks, fatal violence induces an instinct to recoil, to take a step back and reconsider. But not for everybody.”
This is the very de?nition of a vicious cycle. As the committed folks step back since they sense that matters have gone too far, only the most hardcore remain in the ?eld, ready to rumble. “That things will get worse before they get better seems inevitable,” writes Rommelmann. “A movement that justi?es intimidation and violence goes in only one direction, and anybody who says they didn’t see this coming to the streets of Portland has not been paying attention”
THERE ARE SIGNS that ordinary people are becoming more prone to encourage this type of violence, even or even engage in themselves. In October, a group of researchers released a disheartening set of survey answers in Politico. They found that 36 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said it’s at least”a bit” justi?ed to their unwanted”to use violence in accomplishing political aims.” Those amounts are slightly higher if you specify the reduction of an election because the trigger for violence.
The extreme someone’s political views, the more inclined they are to think violence is justi?ed to achieve them.
One of those who recognize as”very liberal,” 26 percent stated that there could be”a great deal” of justi?cation for violence if the Democratic candidate loses the presidency. Among the”very conservative,” which ?gure is currently 16 percent when the Republican candidate loses.
These numbers are up signi?cantly from June, but the tendency begins much sooner. That is neither a left nor a right occurrence, no matter how desperately each side would like that to be the case.
Nobody”started it” Nobody side is choosing the ?ght. This is a change in views about political violence across the board.
The new survey builds on a longstanding body of work with two of the writers, Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, who’ve also discovered that polarization seems to be directly connected to dehumanization, with 20 percent of Republicans and 15 percent of Democrats agreeing in 2018 that members of another party”absence the traits to be considered fully human–they behave like animals.”
A 2019 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put a ?ner point on the ways in which this electoral cycle could be especially ripe for con?ict, declaring that”experimental evidence reveals inducing expectations of electoral victory give powerful partisans more con?dence to endorse violence against their partisan opponents.”
Remember that one of the spring’s most outrageous cases of cancel culture at work was about the question of tolerance for political violence too: A Civis Analytics researcher lost his job after tweeting out an academic study by Princeton’s Omar Wasow about how violent protesters could sabotage the electoral goals of the allies. He was accused of”concern trolling” and”minimizing black despair and rage” and then ?red in what appeared to be a direct response to this tweet. Not only are people more willing to condone violence across the board, but in the extremes some are also less willing to even entertain speak about why such violence might be a poor idea.
There is one additional complicating factor here: The meaning of the word violence is in ?ux. Speech is described as violence. Sometimes silence can be violence, particularly in conversations about race. In certain circles, conversely, it’s now up for discussion whether land destruction counts as violence, with activists pushing back on the idea that the damage to homes and businesses in the aftermath of the summer’s Black Lives Issue protests should be taken into account in any way.
It’s a mistake to con?ate bad tweets with radical violence, but it’s worth pointing out in the waning days of the election season, Bhaskar Sunkara, a co-founder of this aptly named Jacobin magazine, tweeted:”I believe killing small Romanov children was justi?ed. Nonetheless, it is not surprising why these views are contentious given many people’s moral and ethical frameworks.”
Sunkara ultimately took the tweet down. But the thing he might have been most wrong about was that the notion that most people’s ethical and moral frameworks can not accommodate violence in the name of political change. Increasing numbers of Americans see those who disagree with them as subhuman and see politics as a worthy cause for violence, even if they’re not prepared or ready to do violence themselves. For these new Jacobins, the love of the guillotine persists.