Politics & Policy

On Extremism, Left and White

Black Lives Matter protest in Manhattan, April 1, 2017. (Reuters photo: Darren Ornitz)
Our politicians and personalities aren’t leading the people. They’re following. The market for political violence is growing.

If you read the left-wing press, you’re keenly aware that white-supremacist and anti-immigrant violence is on the rise. In New York City, a white supremacist killed a black man with a sword. In Kansas, a white man allegedly shouted ethnic slurs at two Indian engineers before shooting them both (killing one). In Maryland, a member of an “alt-Reich” Facebook group stabbed a young black Army officer to death without provocation. And last weekend, a white supremacist Bernie Sanders supporter stabbed two good samaritans to death after they intervened to stop him from accosting a young Muslim woman and her black friend on a Portland train.

All of this is deeply disturbing, and the events are frequent enough (and come soon enough after Dylann Roof massacred nine black men and women in Charleston) to suggest that a problem — white supremacist violence — that our nation has long struggled to control may be re-emerging as a significant force in American life.

If you read the right-wing press, while you may be aware of these events, you’re likely far more aware of a series of massacres committed in Dallas (five police officers gunned down), Baton Rouge (three cops killed), and Fresno (where a black man killed four white people in a racist shooting spree). You’re also aware of last year’s spike in police ambush shootings, and of the reports of violence and assaults at Black Lives Matter rallies and antifa protests in cities and campuses from coast to coast.

Again, all of this is deeply disturbing and frequent enough to suggest that radical left-wing violence, which has periodically wracked our nation, may be reemerging as a significant force in American life.

I’m beginning to wonder whether the political response to these actions — which tends to focus on top-down influence (“It’s Trump’s fault.” “It’s talk radio’s fault!” “Obama divided us!”) — is getting the matter exactly wrong. I’m beginning to wonder whether the chattering classes are missing something far more significant: the day-to-day radicalization of otherwise ordinary folks, transmitted through social media, and amplified through overblown political rhetoric. Increase the net amount of anger in American life, and you will increase the net number of radicals.

In other words, our politicians and personalities aren’t leading the people. They’re following, and they’re following the people straight into the kind of polarized nightmare that we haven’t seen since the bad days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Consider, on the Left, the bizarre elevation of Maxine Waters to recent cult-hero status. As reporters for The Daily Beast point out, she’s gone from being considered one of the “most corrupt” American politicians to a hero of the #Resistance, receiving standing ovations from the progressive faithful:

Waters, it turns out, is a notorious apologist for left-wing violence, a person who just last month remembered the 1992 Los Angeles riots as an “insurrection” and a “defining moment in this country and I think a defining moment in the way that black people resisted.” But rather than lead progressive populists to banish her from public life, her fighting spirit endears her to them. They love her unrestrained attacks on Trump. In these polarized times, the market speaks, and the market demands radicalism.

Writing today in the New York Times, Melissa Harris-Perry argues that the NAACP must become more radical if it’s going to remain relevant, and she likely has a point. After all, it’s been eclipsed in the popular imagination by a Black Lives Matter movement that is “committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement” and hails cop killers and hijackers as “black revolutionaries.”

Our politics are defined not by the apathetic but by the passionate, and those who are most passionate are also growing increasingly angry.

But it’s easy to call out the Left. Here’s where things get more uncomfortable. Conservatives still have to face the disgusting fact that Steve Bannon is in the president’s inner circle, and Bannon proudly labeled his website, Breitbart, “the platform for the alt-right.” That “platform” compiled massive page-view numbers while publishing dreck that excused the alt-right as little more than countercultural trolls, while writers and journalists (like me, my wife, and many others) found themselves subjected to vicious campaigns of hate, threats, and abuse when we wrote or spoke critically of Trump.

At the same time, right-wing conspiracy theorists thrive, and even the more mainstream (popular radio hosts like Sean Hannity, for example) can veer into the lunatic fringe — to the thunderous applause of the mob. Back down one inch, and you’re “unmanly.” Ask whether the political ends justify the angry and deceptive means of political combat, and you just don’t understand the stakes.

I believe that most Americans are still capable of viewing politics in proper perspective and have a temperamental aversion to extremism, but our politics are defined not by the apathetic but by the passionate, and those who are most passionate are also growing increasingly angry. Not a single national politician speaks in support of gunning down cops in the streets. Yet chanting protesters do in fact scream for blood and laugh when cops get hurt. Not a single national politician calls for white supremacism. Yet the alt-right thrives online, and the white-supremacist body count keeps climbing.

It’s easy and comforting to blame politicians for violence, for creating “climates of hate.” It’s much harder to look in the national mirror and realize that the political market is embracing the fight. When anger grows, extremism grows. And when extremism grows, anger grows all the more. Our national and cultural unraveling continues, and the American people — not politicians — shoulder the lion’s share of the blame.


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