Sunday, October 28, 2018

We’ve Been Here Before: Political Violence’s Transformative Power

The Way We Live Now, Part Four

 Sources: Common Dreams; Michael Vachon; CNN

Author’s Note: Just as I was finishing this essay, the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh occurred, one of the most violent anti-Semitic acts in modern American history.

In Plain Sight
As federal and local law enforcement agencies pursue their investigation of the multiple pipe-bombing attempts targeting Democratic politicians and Donald Trump’s critics, the horror of this act of domestic political terrorism shouldn’t make us forget that we have been here before and that the current crisis is one in a long series of threats and actual acts of physical violence going back many years. Politicians, the mainstream news outlets, and pundits are struggling to come to grips with the gravity of the situation and the necessity of developing concrete counterstrategies but the evidence that this exact scenario was in the offing has been in plain sight for some time. References have begun to crop up in social media to the over 40 bombings of abortion clinics in the U.S. as well as to deadly LGBTQT bashings but apparently absent from public memory is the call to armed insurrection issued by Fox News host Glenn Beck and CNN’s Lou Dobbs right after Barack Obama’s January 2009 inauguration, for which they paid no penalty. Also forgotten are the Tea Party rallies fall 2010 that were held in close proximity to official town hall meetings hosted by Obama on the proposed Affordable Care Act at which members of the audience showed up with loaded weapons. In both cases Democrats responded with silence. These incidents were a potent reminder, if ever one was needed, that many of the accumulated 300 million guns in the U.S.—twice as many as in 1968—had a purpose other than personal enjoyment, one that was profoundly political and served as a silent—and not so silent—form of intimidation of political opponents.

The Tucson Assassination Attempt
Two years later, in January 2011, the threat of armed political violence culminated in the mass shooting by a gunman who targeted a staunch defender of the Affordable Care Act, (Jewish) Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), at an outdoor meeting with her constituents, and left her severely wounded and six other people dead. This was perhaps at the time the most consequential act of domestic terrorism since the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing by white supremacists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in 1995 that killed 168 people, most of them government employees. The assassination attempt came after a hard-fought electoral campaign in which Giffords’ opponent Jesse Kelly, an ex-Marine and Tea Party member, distributed flyers calling for voters to come out to a meeting and shoot an assault rifle to support him in defeating her (“Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully-automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly” [sic]). During the same election, former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin had even featured an electoral map of congressional districts of Democratic members of Congress, including Giffords’, who had voted for the Affordable Care Act, with crosshairs of a gunsight superimposed on each district. After the Tucson shooting Palin remained defiantly unapologetic. Similar images would later re-appear plastered on the van of Cesar Sayoc, the alleged mail bomber of Democratic politicians and liberal supporters, featuring this time around Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in the crosshairs.

How did Democrats respond? As did Republicans, by denouncing the attack as a national tragedy and issuing calls for the cooling of political rhetoric, as if both parties were equally culpable. The theater of bipartisanship won the day at the expense of clear-eyed analysis. The local sheriff overseeing the investigation, Clarence W. Dupnik, had no such qualms and demonstrated an understanding of how political intimidation can work to incite unstable citizens to engage in political violence:

There's reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol. People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences….
When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.


Denial: Not Taking Political Violence Seriously
Nearly two years since Trump’s Electoral College victory, with the exception of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, Democratic leaders have largely continued to conduct themselves as if they are not interested in taking the full measure of the destructive methods of their opponents, or worse, as if they are looking for reasons not to take political violence seriously. His campaign was a breakthrough that unleashed frightening and uncontrollable public dynamics, and the overtly violent political culture and white nationalism that he has mainstreamed have reshaped American politics for years to come. Until Trump supporters revived the anti-Hilary chant “Lock her up!” at Trump’s rallies this fall and extended the threat to Senator Diane Feinstein after the Kavanaugh hearings, and Michael Moore released his film 11/9 with his clear-eyed view of recent political violence and skullduggery, the liberal political establishment and the mainstream media as if by common agreement, rarely made mention of Trump’s call for the incarceration of his opponent should he win the election, and for her assassination by the Second Amendment People (i.e., gun owners and members of the NRA) should she win. And Trump’s successful incitement of crowds to rough up protestors and the members of press have been passed under virtually universal silence. There were a few exceptions like New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat.

Democratic leaders and journalists acted as if they hoped that the intimidation and threats would cease or go away, much in the way of an abused partner or spouse who pleads, “Oh, honey, you really didn’t mean it, did you?” But, of course “honey” did mean it, or rather, sees no reason to stop and can’t help himself or herself (philandering, drinking, physical violence, verbal abuse, psychological harassment, etc.) and will do it again. And again. One of the goals of the massive January 21st Women’s March was to disabuse party leaders of that illusion early on, but successful as it was, it is not clear their message got through to the Democratic establishment. One has only to think of the case of James Comey, then director of the FBI whose re-opening of the Bureau’s investigation into Hilary Clinton’s email server helped seal the fate of her campaign. After his firing in May 2017, it appeared that all was forgotten and forgiven by Democrats and liberal pundits, as he took up cudgels against Trump.

Our Transformed Politics
The 2016 presidential campaign took place in a public climate of uncontrolled violence as the United States witnessed acts of domestic terrorism and mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, Orlando, Florida, and San Bernardino, California, brutal treatment by private security contractors of Native American protestors at Standing Rock, North Dakota, and a wave of video recordings of unprovoked police killings of African-American men. In this harrowing context, the primaries and general election constituted a traumatic lesson to forgetful Democratic politicians of the power of right-wing intimidation and violence to affect the outcome of election campaigns. They were a reminder that threats and fear-mongering are not occasional excesses of contemporary right-wing politics and policies but an integral part of them. They also recalled to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear political violence’s transformative power: it affects not only targets but also perpetrators, and it doesn’t leave the political field as it found it. It can re-write the political script from which politicians, the news media, and pundits all read. Not only can smears, physical threats, and skullduggery paralyze and defeat opponents, but especially when they come from the White House, they can also legitimize the most authoritarian politics and energize the movement or party that deploys them, be it through political speeches, tweets, rallies, or protests. Republican politicians and their right-wing followers now revel in intimidating and threatening others, glory in it, and find each other and bond through it, even forge a new group identity by means of it.

For many supporters Trump’s violence is the very measure of his liberty and authenticity. Perhaps as much as the fulfillment of any one of his electoral promises or policies (that of course contain their own violence) from tax cuts for corporations and the 1% and appointing a hard-right majority to the Supreme Court to erecting protectionist trade barriers and building a wall against immigrants. He is the fantasy figure of the defiant white man. It was striking how quickly Trump’s verbal intimidation and threats against immigrants and the news media after his inauguration no longer put off establishment conservatives but rather drew them in; they fell behind him, not the reverse. The GOP did not transform him; rather he re-made the Republican Party in his own image proving Beltway insiders wrong again. His approval ratings among registered Republicans has remained largely steady at 80-85% and his overall approval rating among likely or registered voters is as high as it has ever been--44%.

In the hands of the current GOP leadership and Donald Trump, threats of political violence, public intimidation, and acts of skullduggery are not just occasional tools of rough and tumble political campaigns but rather an entire political program and even a form of governing. During the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsay Graham countered the poised, careful but emotional testimony of Professor Christine Blasey Ford in response to questions by a Republican prosecutor with a violent preemptive denigration of the motives of their Democratic colleagues. To the wild conspiracy allegations reminiscent of the worst days of McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Democratic Senators remained silent allowing the GOP slanders and staged outrage to course through media outlets unanswered. This has been their preferred tactic to acts of Republican intimidation and character assassination over the last 30 years going all the way back to the racist Willie Horton ads targeting the candidacy of Michael Dukakis in 1988. Seizing on their new-found advantage since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the Republican leadership and Trump, like the seasoned bullies that they are, are now smearing the #MeToo movement as the threat of mob rule in a bid to divide Democrats and delegitimize the Democratic Party as “too extreme and too dangerous to govern.” 

Since the launch of the last presidential campaign, our political atmosphere has crackled with the threat of potential violence. Fear and dread proliferate and paralyze; at their most powerful they can even shape people’s responses, provoking blind panic and, in some cases, counterviolence. The current climate recalls some of the most traumatic years in our recent political history—the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and the Iraq invasion, the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton but perhaps also the stolen presidential elections of 2000. The latter was a case of political thuggery carried out in full view of TV cameras. Many readers will recall, as the Florida vote recount proceeded and reports of physical assaults on poll workers by Republican operatives came in, the air became thick with the threat of political violence. You could cut the mounting climate of fear and dread with a knife, and Al Gore and old guard Democrats hesitated and relented, as if haunted and paralyzed by the unspoken traumatic memory of multiple political assassinations in the 1960s—from civil rights workers and John F. and Robert Kennedy to Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and (later on) gay rights politician Harvey Milk. When the Republican partisans on the Supreme Court put a stop to the recount, Democratic politicians woke up to find themselves ejected from the political arena by a coup d’├ętat and did not muster the courage to say so to the nation.

As we try to make our way through the ongoing pipe bomb crisis—twelve bombs and counting and a prime suspect in custody—for once Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer cast aside their reflexive expressions of hopeful bipartisanhip and issued an aggressive rebuke to Trump and Republicans for creating the harsh national climate that enables such heinous actions. This is a far cry from their public reaction to the Gabrielle Giffords’ assassination attempt and a welcome departure from their usual lackluster response to political intimidation and public bullying. There are now signs of a new awareness that GOP violence is not just an ethical problem or one of “civility” but a political one as well: namely, it has worked for them very well and poses a threat to our democracy. However, one statement, however strong, does not constitute a robust and courageous counter-strategy, which is what is needed to anticipate and combat the growing waves of right-wing and white nationalist violence in our country that has acquired a momentum that now feeds on itself. The genie is out of the bottle: just am I finishing this essay one of the most violent anti-Semitic acts in modern American history has occurred, the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It comes on the heels of Trump’s attacks on George Soros and other “globalists” (the revived codeword for Jewish financiers) that he continued even after news broke that one of the mail bombs was destined for George Soros himself.

Author’s Note 2: This is the fourth installment in a series, The Way We Live Now, on the current public climate of fear and intimidation in the United States that has been building for years and since the kick-off of the last presidential campaign in 2015 has come to poison our politics and reached into our very relationships with family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Part One, “The Emotional Toll of Public Bullying and Political Intimidation,” focused on the experience of the sheer power and psychological effects of bullying in general and public bullying and political intimidation in particular. Part Two, “How Political Bullying and Intimidation Work: A Practical Guide,” looked at how public bullying works as a concrete method and set of political tools dating back to the 1980s and provided readers with a map through this potent minefield and a way to anticipate future acts of aggression. Part Three, “Political Thuggery & Party Identities,” explored why over the years Republicans and their right-wing supporters have freely resorted to extremely aggressive political tactics—and just as important--why Democratic Party leaders and their liberal allies have often failed to take seriously such acts of political violence and skullduggery by their opponents and respond accordingly. Part of the answer, I argue, lies in their respective practices of loyalty and identity, social composition, and conceptions of governing.