Is America Headed for a Wave of Political Violence?

In March of 2016, during the heat of the Republican primary contest, Josh Marshall, the tetchy founder of Talking Points Memo, offered an ominous augury about the raucous Trump campaign. “Someone will die,” he thundered, giving, at the time, the umpteenth warning about the violent effects of the real estate magnate’s aggressive rhetoric. “It may sound like hyperbole. But this is the kind of climate of agitation and violence where someone will end up getting severely injured or killed. I do not say that lightly,” Marshall warned his loyal audience.

I’ve thought about the piece a lot since Trump’s unlikely election and the Democrats’ slow descent into madness. Every new instance of liberal-concocted violence brings it back to mind, like a nagging reminder. Whether it’s James Hodgkinson’s attempted killing spree, Trump supporters accosted in public, or even hoaxed hate crimes, Marshall’s prediction might appear prescient, albeit in a backwards way.

But is it true that we’re living in a “climate of agitation”? A recent New York Times piece also seems to confirm what gringo expat Fred Reed observed not long after Marshall’s disquieted conjecture: that America “seems angry — quietly so, not sure what to do about it, but looking for someone to hit.”

Political violence is now common in Venezuela (photo credit Leo Ramirez)

In “No Hate Left Behind,” Thomas Edsall cites a study from political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason on the growing ease at which Americans are willing to employ violence against their partisan opponents. “Just over 42 percent of the people in each party view the opposition as ‘downright evil,’” Edsall despairs, unaware that one of his byline colleagues once suggested “good people can’t be Republicans.” The data only gets worse from there. When asked if their favored party loses the 2020 presidential election, “18.3 percent of Democrats and 13.8 percent of Republicans said violence would be justified on a scale ranging from ‘a little’ to ‘a lot.’”

One wonders the difference between a “little” violence and “a lot.” Perhaps a walloping with a bar of soap stuffed in a sock is seen as a small-beer beating compared to the guillotine or firing squad? Sure, there’s the difference in degree, but as any victim of domestic abuse can tell you, soft beatings inevitably turn hard.

Then there’s the question of ontological moral status. The researchers found that “nearly one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries ‘lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.’”

It’s a neat little coincidence that three years to the day of Marshall’s warning, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota suggested President Trump is not human. (Her opinion on Jewish Americans is, we can assume, not altogether different.) And who says white papers never represent the real world?

The statistics are troubling, to be sure. And while our times may seem uniquely unhinged, they should be put in the context of history in order to be fully understood. The phrase “political polarization” is invoked, by my count, at least 400 times a day in major publications to describe our anxious political climate. Social media enflames our imaginations by presenting the very worst of human nature: risk-less musings about the existential threats posed by our political opposites. Politics has become less about bargaining over our collective life than a passion similar to the fiery devotion of European football clubs.  National Review’s David French, in commenting on the Edsall report, worries that “partisan hate is becoming a national crisis.”

Saying there’s too much hatred in America’s air is like saying there’s too much salt in the ocean. The country was founded on partisan bickering, which occasionally turned violent. It’s narrow-minded to suggest we’re at a more perilous time in our history than, say, the Civil War or even the frequent riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s or the Galleanist bombings of 1919. The last guy who tried to wage a national bombing campaign only sent duds from his bumper-sticker-laden creeper van.

Aside from hyperventilating Hollywood types, who get an outsized amount of media coverage, and the discursive rantings on Facebook, we’re not quite at the point where neighbors turn on neighbors, kids turn on parents, brothers turn on brothers, all in a bloody free-for-all. Go to a supermarket on any given day and you’ll see all types of Americans quietly going about their business. Few people let the fear of mass shootings or terrorist attacks disrupt their plans. We have yet to see roving gangs of marauders targeting MAGA-hat wearers or Beto devotees.

America doesn’t have an anger problem so much as it has an anger-management problem. We’re a naturally het-up people. Sometimes that leaks out into scrums of fisticuffs. But, a lot of frustration that drives these physical altercations comes from a double standard. Those who go unpunished for aggression aren’t going to see the light and make peace with their ideological adversaries. One side gets a clear pass when it comes to acting on its frustrations, and it’s not the side Jussie Smollett tried to blame for his botched publicity stunt. When leftists haul off and slug conservatives, the media-driven outcry is not nearly the same as when the inverse occurs.

Josh Marshall inadvertently revealed as much by focusing on Trump’s coarse language and not the left’s own lack of self-control. Yes, someone has died as a casualty of a twisted political ideology. But the threat of a mass breakout in violence remains overstated. How we act in person is different than what we say on Twitter or to a pollster. One-on-one conversation can ease years of Facebook-fueled tension in just minutes. As Great Britain’s P.G. Wodehouse once admitted during the Blitz, “when I’m about to feel belligerent about some country I meet a decent sort of chap” who causes him to lose “any fighting feelings or thoughts.”

That can all change, of course. Evil minds like the Christchurch shooter are trying to foment more discord in our society. They should be ignored. And we should remain guarded against online warnings about an epidemic of violence. The country has survived worse.

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