The Political Violence to Come
“One side has about 8 trillion bullets, while the other side doesn’t know which bathroom to use.”
— Former Representative Steve King (R-IA)
So, what if Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber or Gaige Grosskreutz had managed to grab the rifle out of the hands of Kyle Rittenhouse and killed him? No doubt that under Wisconsin’s self-defense law that resulted in Rittenhouse’s acquittal that if that particular table had turned his killer would also have received an acquittal. Maybe not; perhaps that jury would have presumed that you have to be the owner of the weapon to earn your right to self-defense. If Huber had bashed Rittenhouse’s brains out with his skateboard, would he be a Republican folk hero today? All that matters to those folks is which side you are on; neither the letter nor the spirit of the law is even considered any more. What if the victim carrying his own gun had opened fire, resulting in a duel at the Kenosha Corral? Would the survivor have been convicted, not of homicide but of conducting an illegal duel? The survivor would have been held for aggravated assault and probably convicted under that law. Particularly since the two parties did not agree in advance to the exchange prior to conducting it.
Christina Hale, “Shots Fired,” 2012, pencil, pen and watercolor, 11 1/2 x 14”
These are the pathetic Big Questions of 2021, and for no better reason than about 25% of the country is convinced, and is fed newly received wisdom on a daily basis, that their way of life is about to come to an end. The mere presence of the wrong sort of person, someone like Ahmaud Arbery has become sufficient to attract vigilante enforcers like acorns draw squirrels. Arbery looked like the wrong sort of person to three men who caught him engaged in the transgression of being Black while jogging in suburban Satilla Shores, Georgia, so they pursued him in their trucks, ran him down and shot him dead. Local police and the DA, displaying all of the Southern gentility of a century ago, did their damndest to block any arrest or prosecution. Naturally the fact that the weaponless Arbery attempted to defend himself with his fists was advanced by defense attorneys to argue that his killers were, in fact, the ones engaged in self-defense. A novel definition is implicit in this brilliant rhetoric: try to prevent an assailant from shooting you dead and you lose both ways. It’s your killer who was the victim and justified in their act of lethal violence. The fact of their conviction this past week is heartening only because that would not have happened back in the thrilling Jim Crow days of yesteryear that Trump and his brownshirts are working so hard to take us back to. The irony is that if one of these sharp knives had not elected to record their blessed event on his iPhone they probably would have not even been prosecuted, let alone convicted.
Mervin Weeks painting Ahmaud Arbery mural, Brunswick, Georgia, 2020
Consider, too, the one insurrectionist who was shot dead by Capitol Police on January 6, Ashli Babbit. Starting with the former president and fanning out from a Fox News editing studio under the ever subtle supervision of Tucker Carlson, she is no longer just the victim of her own efforts to wreak havoc on the 2020 election certification and members of Congress. By this account it was the Police who were out of line in the performance of their duties, and Ms. Babbit a “martyr” to the high cause of, well, overthrowing the U.S. government. The fact that there are many elected officials who rush to elevate these types of people into not mere innocents but “folk heroes” (we actually read such language in press reports) goes right to the point: this has never been about self-defense but the power of vigilantes representing one political party to intimidate, even terrorize partisans of the other with impunity.
These are anecdotal examples that most of us are familiar with. The looming problem is that they are indicative of what is to come, and unless we are both very good and very fortunate what is to come is going to be very, very ugly. The whole idea is that these paragons of virtue are being used by Trump and his allied political zombies to sow intimidation intended to keep Democratic voters away from the polls, election workers from volunteering, and crowds from gathering in large numbers once the real election steal has been accomplished. Actual acts of violence remain rare but they are not aberrations. Each contributes to the political pressure designed to keep everyone on high alert — one side eager to inflict its notion of creative destruction, the other side eager to withdraw. Is any job worth you and your family being the target of regular death threats? And why should we assume that this program of threats without much action will not result in an actual bloodbath? And that the lead perpetrator at some point after 2024 might not be the state itself?
Not all elected Republicans feel that this strategy is either morally justified or in the interest of the country. That is scant comfort because a large majority in that party agree that the siren song of political violence needs to be loud in the land for them to regain their position of power and privilege. Those are the moderates mind you; there will be plenty of willing partners in this national dance with the devil should the streets, as they say, flow red. And enough time has gone by since the mass violent deaths produced by the last World War, 70 million of them, that many people feel the ancient pull, the yearning for the adventure, the adrenaline rush of risking it all. To embrace that risk requires two central articles of faith, and boy, are there a lot of faithful: not to do so guarantees that the encroaching enemy (that would be most of us, if I know our readership) will destroy them, no doubt with fully loaded paint brushes; and that being the case, to be surrounded by comrades, presumably all well-armed, is the basic requirement for personal safety.
Pablo Picasso, “Guernica,” 1937, oil on canvas, 137 3/4 x 305 7/8”
In a mass society a regular concern for security from violence is unsurprising and reasonable, but our method for several generations has been rooted in social stability and strong legal and enforcement establishments. For the vast majority of Americans, particularly in the post-War world of the last 75 years, violence is associated with crime, not war, and crime is most commonly associated with economics (and to a lesser degree passion or mental illness). The body of art, in all disciplines, that explores violence in these contexts is both vast in its sheer volume and varied in quality. It ranges from exploitative potboiler to the highest form of expression, witness some of Picasso’s or Shakespeare’s greatest masterworks.
Only very, very few Americans have been subjected to political violence, or to put it more precisely violence that is specifically intended to produce a desired political outcome by virtue of its coercive power. War, for about 98% of Americans (our professional military consists of less than 2% of the population), is a distant matter that impacts us either not at all or, perhaps, has an economic fallout (the Vietnam War led to a period of high inflation, high interest rates and high unemployment that most over the age of 50 still recall). We can be grateful for that, though millions of others around the world have not experienced similar peace and security. Many have hoped, even theorized that the days of mass warfare are behind us, that in this post-War period we have built a society that has at last outgrown the possibility of such convulsions. It may be that our knowledge of history and awareness of the destructive power of military technologies has finally stayed our collective hands for the obvious reasons that the suffering is too great and the cost is too high. But current trend lines point in the wrong direction.
Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (Forever),” 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers. Photo: Timo Ohler
Black Americans justifiably cite examples such as the Tulsa and Wilmington massacres, the long history of lynchings that may no longer be a near daily occurrence, but still take place, as in the case of Mr. Arbery. Killings committed by rogue police officers have slowed but not ceased since the George Floyd murder. For Black Americans and members of other ethnic minorities, force in the name of social control is hardly a foreign concept. But pulling back the historical lens makes starkly visible the invocation of at least the threat of political violence as not merely one option, but a primary option by which political power is asserted and preserved.
Domestic terrorism, as FBI Director Christopher Wray has testified before Congress, has emerged as our number one national security threat over the last five years, and it is being deployed knowingly to demoralize not just Democrats, but also Republicans who step out of line. It is playing out this way thanks in large part, but hardly exclusively, at the instigation of former president Trump. It is a stark contrast to the pre-2017 world, and in equal contrast to the string of assassinations (and attempts) that took place in the 1960s and 70s. Unlike then, now many leaders of the Republican Party are actively encouraging it, or cheerleading it after the fact. Destabilizing the national gyroscope is not merely a natural consequence, it is now a deliberate political strategy. A large enough cadre — broadly encouraged but, like young Rittenhouse, self-appointed — is now firmly in place to routinely harass low level public officials throughout the country, right down to local school board members. If that is now part of the job description, most civic-minded people who normally would be willing to serve will count themselves out. In fact, that is what is happening.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, Montgomery, Alabama
What distinguishes extremists in 2021 is that their threats have thus far resulted in only very few deaths, and the cloak of judicial protection from the consequences is not guaranteed. Republican leaders in some states and in the federal government not only tolerate but justify and encourage the intimidation; beyond that they are simply crossing their fingers. If things get out of control in 2022 or 2024, then what?
In his new book “Betrayal,” journalist Jonathan Karl quotes from his recorded interview with Mr. Trump that insurrectionists’ threats to hang his own Vice-President were “Common sense … People were angry.” The deep message in this and other statements is that the threat of violence is a legitimate political device. The former president is able to count on the minions of his extremist core, his brownshirts, to serve as his enforcers under a cloak of anonymity. There is a ready and willing audience listening, always poised to post and phone in their threats. Public statements such as former Representative Steve King’s (above), or the recent violent animé posting by current Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ), for now stripped of his committee assignments as a consequence, have only grown bolder and more explicit; the cockroaches who voice their support no longer scatter with the light of day.
A noose hangs from a hastily constructed gallows outside the U.S. Capitol amid the Trump insurrection on January 6.