Behind pre-election violence in the U.S.
One of the most comforting beliefs to those of us in North America is that we’re different somehow in terms of violent conflict. We observe that other countries are consumed by warfare, but it hasn’t happened at home for many generations – and thus we come to believe we are exempt. We aren’t, of course – we’ve been lucky, not smart. Our politicians haven’t recently seen their interests lying in drumming up violence inside the country. But it turns out to be surprisingly easy to do.
There’s been right-wing pre-election violence across the US. The media has not clearly tied this violence to the election. But to a political scientist, the pattern is obvious and frightening. We see this a lot in countries that are sliding toward or just emerging from civil war. There are ten stages commonly understood to be pre-cursors to genocide or serious societal violence, and we are on stage six. Six.
We know these attacks are political because they either specifically name Trump or unique Trumpian ideas. A synagogue shooting killed eleven, reacting to increasingly overt messages that foreigners are a threat, and Jews are helping foreigners. A failed mail-bombing campaign was presaged by increasingly violent Make-america-great-again (MAGA) messages on social media. A man killed two random black people in a grocery store after trying and failing to get into a black church. A yoga studio was attacked and two people killed after the killer posted graphically misogynistic messages online and said that we should plant landmines to keep people from crossing the Mexican border.
All of these supposedly isolated attacks are united by one thing: the killers’ perception that a new Trumpian era makes it all right to attack certain kinds of targets.
Democracies make staying out of war a little easier – sometimes. Deadly conflict is typically unpopular, and if people think a leader is acting in his own interest, that generally doesn’t attract a lot of loyal followers. But if that leader can make people think he (or she!) is acting in their interests, that drive to violence is far more dangerous. In each of these recent incidents, the perpetrators thought Trump was speaking for them, and would defend their violence against their enemies.
We are used to leaders telling the truth, because most leaders in democracies who lie about important things lose their jobs pretty fast. People in autocracies on the other hand are used to being very skeptical of the motives of their leaders.
So, sometimes democratic trust is an exploitable weakness. The key is finding an issue or enemy that unites enough of the country, an enemy that can be painted as endangering the country. It doesn’t have to be a majority; in fact, it rarely is. A unified, angry minority is sufficient.
We know that elections are particularly dangerous times. Trust is what makes people believe that, even if they lose this election, they’ll have another chance to win in two years, four years, five years. It is precious and fragile, this trust.
Up until the last few years, political scientists thought that the reason newer democracies were so fragile and prone to civil war was because it takes time for that trust to develop – and moreover, the longer it develops, the more it is internalized.
Yet it is clear that that is only partly true. Some very old, well-established democracies have been suffering a potentially catastrophic failure of that very trust principle.
Why? Some messages work, at least on a small, but essential segment of the population. Messages like Trump’s “the media is the enemy”, Orban in Hungary arguing that intellectuals are the enemy, or Erdogan in Turkey arguing the opposition is the enemy: these messages work.
Insidiously, they work even if you fight back against the obviously false claim, as of course any shocked observer should want to do. If you argue that the media, the intellectuals, the opposition aren’t actually the enemy, the word “enemy” isn’t removed from the conversation, lending weight to the charge. The argument becomes “Is the media in fact the enemy”. Instead of a ridiculous proposition laughed out of the room as it should be, it becomes a plausible belief.
More dangerously, there’s something we call the Rubicon effect, named after Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and forcing his empire into war. People, when deciding whether to fight each other, are nuanced and careful in their analysis. But when they’ve already decided to choose conflict, all that nuance disappears, and it becomes an us-or-them, black-or-white, my-country-right-or-wrong sort of thing instead. At that point, when we see one side starting to get violent, it becomes supremely dangerous, because the violent people aren’t denounced by their own side anymore. Alternatively, condemnations can be so weak as to be a dog whistle secretly signaling approval. That creates a strong permissive environment to allow more violence to occur.
The only good news is that in beginning democracies, the most violent times are around elections, and the violence – and the threat of violence escalating into something much worse – usually diminishes as the election recedes into memory. So let’s hope that beginning democracies are ironically a teaching model for the more established ones.