The attempted murder of several Congressmen and shooting of one marks another step in the progressive dissolution of the U.S. occurring before our eyes. That the shooter could have been either from the right or the left indicates how close we have come to widespread political violence.
Nations are held together despite having populations with very different views on many issues because they hold their common membership above the issues that divide them. This is a significant achievement, one not to be taken for granted. Laws alone do not do it. Many former European colonies adopted Western parliamentary systems upon achieving independence, but few of those institutions survived. The British once had a politics as violent as nay on earth, as readers of Shakespeare know, and even today have no written constitution despite maintaining a parliamentary democracy even under constant bombardment in WWI. These examples point to an important feature we are seeing wither away before our eyes.
A society maintains a common identity by customs as well as laws. Customs conducive to peaceful political action are actually more important than formal institutions and constitutions, as the above examples indicate. This is an insight rooted, ironically, in conservative thought. But customs are no more impervious to change and challenge than is a constitution.
Changing the Frame: the language of war
If future historians end up writing about the break up or collapse of the United States in the 21st century, they will likely name two people as particularly crucial in initiating the process: Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter. These people initiated a shift in mainstream political debate from people who differed on policies but ultimately supported the country to people who were at war with one another, as enemies. The left is not blameless. The most authoritarian leftists had been rendered silent and rejected by the crimes and then collapse of Communism in the 1980s. However, some left intellectuals endorsed the thinking of Nazi jurist Karl Schmitt because he opposed liberalism, and Schmitt also wrote of politics in terms of war. But in this country, happily, they were of negligible influence. At a national and public level the shift from the language of democratic politics to that of war was initiated and long pushed only by the right.
While several people were disproportionately responsible, two it seems to me carry more blame than others for initiating the process. These individuals legitimated and normalized ways of thinking that, before them, had been muttered only privately in John Birch Society meetings or Klan or Minuteman gatherings.
In 1999 Pat Buchanan wrote “In politics, conservatives have won more than they have lost, but in the culture, the left and its Woodstock values have triumphed. Divorce, dirty language, adultery, blasphemy, euthanasia, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, cohabitation and so on were not unknown in 1960. But today, they permeate our lives. . . We can no more walk away from the culture war than we can walk away from the Cold War. For the culture war is at its heart a religious war about whether God or man shall be exalted, whose moral beliefs shall be enshrined into law, and what children shall be taught to value and abhor . . .With those stakes, to walk away is to abandon your post in time of war.” Buchanan emphasized “If God is king, men have a duty to try, as best they can, to conform their lives to His will and shape society in accordance with His law. Defection and indifferentism are not options. We are commanded to fight.” He has continually emphasized this point.
This was new. Neither leading Republicans nor leading Democrats had talked that way before. But Buchanan was not alone.
In 2002, after the right wing terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, Ann Coulter startled people on all political sides by saying “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.” She later clarified “Of course I regret [saying] it. I should have added, ‘after everyone had left the building except the editors and reporters.’” Later, regarding a young man who joined Iraqis against the American invasion “we need to execute people like John Walker [Lindh] in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they could be killed, too.” She spoke these words at the 2002 Conservative Action Conference in 2002. Later Coulter clarified her remarks: “when I said we should “execute” John Walker Lindh, I mis-spoke. What I meant to say was ‘We should burn John Walker Lindh alive and televise it on prime-time network TV’. My apologies for any misunderstanding that might have occurred.
A frequent visitor to college campuses, and often invited by young right wingers, Coulter has played an important role in normalizing what were once abhorrent thoughts. I remember years ago reading that when asked about her violent rhetoric, one conservative student responded essentially “That’s why we like her. She says what we think.” That is just the point. We all have thoughts we regard as unworthy of us. And we stifle them. In doing so over time we often weaken their hold.
Advocating the unthinkable
The issue here isn’t honesty. Whether they are from the left or right, young people are famous in seeing issues in more black and white terms than most adults. This is not surprising, for the most idealistic of them have little life experience and are convinced they have a clear map showing the way to a better word. Life itself teaches us the limits of pure theory and idealism, but that takes time. When one is young and idealistic, customary restraint must serve that role when seeing a contradiction between what is and what should be. It substitutes for a wisdom that has not yet developed.
Social and political norms and customs are an important part of this process, and while sometimes they are themselves oppressive, they also serve an important role in keeping potentially violent or otherwise harmful actions safely in the realm of silent thoughts rather than public actions. When those norms are weakened or dissolved by respected people, those looking to them for guidance, be they young or old, dissolve them as well. it becomes legitimate to say what we think, whatever it may be, cultural barriers to the worst of what we think are lessened. We don’t question the legitimacy of our violent thoughts, we accept them.
As this rhetoric became normalized, it became easier to use such language oneself. In the U.S. this was mostly on the right, with increasing talk of “Second amendment solutions” and the like. As such talk became normalized it became easier for the fanatics on both sides to act on it. Here is a partial list, all by prominent Republicans:
· GOP House candidate Robert Lowry held a campaign event at a Florida gun range in October 2009, where he fired gunshots at a silhouette that had his opponent Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s printed on it.
· “You know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” – Sharron Angle, Republican candidate for the Senate from NV.
· “If I could issue hunting permits, I would officially declare today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits on how many taken as we desperately need to ‘thin’ the herd.” -Brad Goehring, Republican seeking to be elected to the House.
· “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office,” read an advertisement for the event called “Shoot a fully automatic M16 With Jesse Kelly.”
· “Don’t retreat, instead- RELOAD!” – Sarah Palin after circulating a map with crosshairs over lawmakers who supported the ACA
· “You know but other than me going over there with a gun and holding it to their head and maybe killing a couple of them, I don’t think they’re going to listen unless they get beat.” – Rep. John Sullivan, (R-OK)
Today this degeneration of civic norms is also happening on the left. For example, consider the academic thugs that seek to suppress more conservative and moderate students on campuses, with the aid of faculty members who should be looking for a job more in keeping with their qualifications. For they do not belong in universities and colleges. I am not blind to violent stupidity by leftists. Stupid and violent people can be found in all political positions, and they are kept in their place not only by law, but also by customs for what is and what is not legitimate political rhetoric. And as the rhetoric degenerates, so in time will the actions.
But the leftists who preach violence are bit players in various sects. The rightists who legitimate it include the President of the United States. No major candidate in our history has advocated jailing his opponent, let alone his opponent’s lawyers, except Donald Trump. No major candidate in our history stood silently by while a supporter advocated killing his opponent, except Trump. Trump again brought up Second Amendment solutions, another first. By contrast when he ran for the Presidency, John McCain defended Obama’s decency when he was attacked as an Arab by a crowd of his supporters. Trump lied about birth certificates and undermined the legitimacy of the presidency among his supporters.
Thoughts to words to action
The violent rhetoric today remains primarily on the right, as does the body count, and they initiated it. Much has been made by the fact that a Bernie supporter committed the shootings in Virginia. Those making much of this have been silent on the right-wing terrorist crimes just in the previous five days:
· A white man who liked ‘alt-right’ White supremacist and pro Trump information killed a Black soldier.
· A Portland right wing White supremacist and Nazi sympathizer killed two men and injured another when they came to the assistance of two women he was threatening,
· A Kansas man killed one Indian man and wounded two after yelling they should get out of the country, and was indicted for committing a hate crime.
· A White Californian yelled racial slurs and then seriously stabbed a Black man
· Not to mention other planned terrorist acts that were interrupted by the police such as a plan by three men to commit mass murder among Muslims.
Of course the victims up till June 14, real and planned, were not elected officials. They were plain Americans. But already some Democrats have withdrawn from political races because, the say, of death threats. The next step is political violence, and it was a toss-up as to who might be first.
The right wing, aided by the Republican Party, has done enormous damage to the customs of civility that kept talk of violence confined to the most extreme sects on all sides. They have mainstreamed the rhetoric of violence. As it is, violent acts will increasingly follow. Probably on both sides although based on past actions, it will be primarily by the right.
A society dissolves through many small steps.