American politics is taking a dangerous turn. Or, I should say, American politics is taking a dangerous turn again. In the space of a few days last week, leftist protesters individually targeted trump aide Stephen Miller, taunted Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in a restaurant and at her home, mocked (and allegedly spat at) Florida attorney general Pam Bondi at a movie theater, and denied service to Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a restaurant in Lexington, Va.
Then, on Sunday, Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters said this:
Maxine Waters calls for attacks on Trump administration: "If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere." pic.twitter.com/jMV7wk48wM
— Ryan Saavedra 🇺🇸 (@RealSaavedra) June 24, 2018
Make no mistake, this is provocative rhetoric. Angry, in-your-face confrontations dramatically increase the chances of violence. Put people in close proximity, yelling and spitting, and public officials will rightly start to fear that they’re in physical danger. While millions of Americans don’t remember that a Bernie Sanders supporter last year tried to assassinate a significant portion of the GOP Congress, you can be assured that not a single Republican in Washington has forgotten. They can never be sure that the screaming person in front of them doesn’t mean them physical harm.
Argue against these dangerous confrontations, and you’ll always get the same response: This administration is uniquely evil. It was taking children from their parents. The president just tweeted that he wants to strip due-process rights from illegal immigrants. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
What is the limiting principle here? The president caved on family separation after a few days of intense, bipartisan public pressure. Now the immigration policy the protesters are targeting is similar to one the Obama administration applied until late in his presidency.
How, for that matter, does the “desperate times call for desperate measures” analysis apply to events as disparate as threatening FCC chair Ajit Pai over net neutrality or attacking Charles Murray during a speech about America’s economic and class divides? How does it apply to the hellacious ordeal of Wisconsin conservatives who dared take on public-employee unions in Wisconsin? When the radicals actually hold the reins of government power, this can happen:
“It’s a matter of life or death.”
That was the first thought of “Anne” (not her real name). Someone was pounding at her front door. It was early in the morning — very early — and it was the kind of heavy pounding that meant someone was either fleeing from — or bringing — trouble.
“It was so hard. I’d never heard anything like it. I thought someone was dying outside.”
She ran to the door, opened it, and then chaos. “People came pouring in. For a second I thought it was a home invasion. It was terrifying. They were yelling and running, into every room in the house. One of the men was in my face, yelling at me over and over and over.”
The home invaders were Wisconsin law-enforcement officers. The alleged justification for the raid was to investigate potential “coordination” between outside conservative groups and the Scott Walker gubernatorial campaign. In reality, they were raiding homes to investigate constitutionally protected conservative issue advocacy. It was an obscene abuse of power.
Politics deals with weighty matters. Thus, if you look hard enough, you can always find a pretext to inflict pain. Human life is at stake at every moment in the abortion debate. Men, women, and children live or die depending on the foreign-policy choices of every American president. Economic fortunes rise and fall. Civil liberties hang in the balance.
It’s precisely because politics is important that we have to work so hard to maintain peaceful and reasonable discourse.
It’s precisely because politics is important that we have to work so hard to maintain peaceful and reasonable discourse. If history is any guide, the default human position is the scream of rage followed by the lunge for the pitchfork. We human beings have a tendency to escalate politics into civil strife and civil strife into war. Our Founders understood this reality, so they created a system that provides for political change without pitchforks. In the United States, the frequency of elections ensures regular accountability, judicial review can check abuse, and the First Amendment protects opportunities to persuade.
Think of how much the constitutional system has already worked to halt the worst of Trump’s actions. Malice and incompetence pervaded the first edition of his travel ban. The combination of peaceful protest and judicial intervention led to multiple revisions, and the Supreme Court — not Trump alone — will ultimately decide the ban’s fate. Similar malice and incompetence pervaded the Trump family-separation policy, and bipartisan outrage (supplemented by, yes, peaceful protest) forced him to reverse his position.
But all bets are off when protest turns vicious, dangerous, and personal. I’m far less concerned by the denial of service to Sanders at a liberal restaurant than I am by the direct intrusions by protesters into the personal spaces of public officials. Listen to Pam Bondi describe her weekend ordeal, and try to tell me these actions aren’t well over the line:
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) June 25, 2018
Men, inches from her face, screaming at her and blocking her path? Each person involved was one tiny miscalculation away from a dreadful and potentially deadly incident.
Finally, if recent American history is any guide, the mob only sows the seeds of its own destruction. Americans don’t like political violence. They’re not impressed by men trying to physically intimidate women. They don’t like to see protesters disturbing the peace of a person’s home. The last time the Left turned to rage, it lost presidential elections in landslides. If given the choice between terrible tweets and chaos in the streets, voters will choose the tweets every time.
So, the choice is clear. Protest all you want, but the moment you turn vicious is the moment you turn dangerous. When you start to tear at the fabric of American political life, you won’t be able to control — and may not like — the forces you unleash in response.
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