Be­hind pre-elec­tion vi­o­lence in the U.S.

The Victoria Standard - - Commentary - HE­LEN DELFELD

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.

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