Just before the election, an Andrew Gillum intern named Shelby Shoup was arrested and charged with battery after assaulting some college Republicans on the campus of Florida State University. It was rather less exciting than that sounds: She went on a rant about “Nazis” and “fascism” — Gillum’s Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, finished up at Harvard Law and then joined the U.S. military and helped to fight actual Jew-hating totalitarian thugs in Iraq, in case anybody cares about the facts — before dousing the Republicans with chocolate milk.
There isn’t much of enduring interest in that story: Feckless and hysterical young Caitlyns have been going all rage-monkey from coast to coast for a good bit now, and one might get a feel for the level of maturity at play here by meditating on the fact that a grown-ass woman of legal voting age was walking around drinking chocolate milk. Caitlyns gotta Caitlyn, I suppose.
Of course Shoup should be convicted on a misdemeanor battery charge, this being a fairly open-and-shut case supported by video evidence. Her actions are also a serious violation of the university’s code of student conduct, which could entail punishment up to and including expulsion. Kicking her out of the university would be excessive, I think, and she’s obviously in need of further and better education. I’d suggest having her write a 40-page essay on the works of Russell Kirk or F. A. Hayek, or maybe Ludwig von Mises on the actual Nazis and totalitarianism.
Spilt milk, indeed.
This sort of behavior should be understood as being on a spectrum.
The assault on Tucker Carlson’s home by Antifa thugs this week was a much more serious episode. It was an act of political terrorism directed at the family of a journalist and commentator with the goal of intimidating him into silence. “We know where you sleep at night,” they chanted as they vandalized his home and his wife hid in a pantry. (He was not at home during the episode.) They also broke his front door in what may or may not have been an attempt to illegally and forcibly enter the home. A mob of 20 or so thugs trying to kick in the door, a mother by herself hiding in a pantry: The next time somebody asks you why anybody really needs a semiautomatic rifle, here’s your answer.
Imagine a line that measures the moral distance between Shelby Shoup’s battery in Florida to the Antifa assault on Tucker Carlson’s home, and then extend that line by the same distance in the same direction. Where are we then? Arson? Bombs? The kind of massacre James T. Hodgkinson was trying to pull off when he shot Steve Scalise and fired on other Republicans? How long until we arrive at Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden — both of whom earnestly believed that their acts of terrorism were morally imperative in the face of tyranny and evil?
Shoup and Antifa flatter themselves that they are what stands between the United States and fascism or Nazism. This is, obviously, absurd. It’s pure tribalism: President Obama authorized the extrajudicial killing of American citizens as a national-security measure; President Trump is an angry tweeter. But it is the latter rather than the former that apparently presages the rise of a Falange Americana. That is how you know that this is a fundamentally unserious point of view.
But unserious points of view can have serious consequences. I am skeptical of most claims that such-and-such speech (always the other guy’s rhetoric) leads inexorably to violence. It was a dumb argument back when Tipper Gore was making it about rappers, and it’s a dumb argument when Fareed Zakaria makes it about President Trump. There are people who want to perform acts of violence and who will find a pretext for doing so; sometimes their pathological hatred finds a specifically political expression, sometimes a religious one, sometimes whatever it is that the Unabomber was thinking. Campus Caitlyns are primed and looking for an opportunity to engage in performative hysterics, and very few of them have the talent to make a career out of it the way (congratulations to the Bronx) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has.
My objection to these absurd claims of Nazism isn’t so much that they might inspire violence (Americans generally require very little inspiration on that front) but that they are not true. Ron DeSantis is not a Nazi. No amount of petulant weeping and chocolate-milk tossing is going to make that true. Mitt Romney, lately of Utah, did not get himself elected to the Senate in the service of a white-nationalist agenda. Rick Scott has nothing in common with the Ku Klux Klan. Mitch McConnell is not very much like Benito Mussolini. These are the facts of the case. The politics of opposition, like the politics of government, should be based if not on things that are self-evidently true then at least on those that are not self-evidently false.
Calling yourself an “antifascist” while defining “fascism” as “the enforcement of ordinary immigration laws” or “thinking that Bernie Sanders is a grumpy Muppet who should be kept far from the levers of power” is entirely childish and deeply stupid. (These absurd characterizations also, not that anybody really cares, drown out legitimate criticisms of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans.) These play-acting buffoons aren’t the moral equivalent of the French Resistance — they are mincing would-be thugs looking for something that will make them feel better about themselves. Apparently, terrorizing Tucker Carlson’s wife scratches an itch that weed and NetFlix don’t.
Periods of intense social change often are accompanied by mass hysterias. The snoopery and vindictiveness of the Red Scare were only partly about Communism — much of the paranoia of that time had to do with events in Muncie, not Moscow. The mass hysteria about Satanic cults engaged in the widespread sexual abuse of American children — a complete fiction—was probably a moral overcorrection set against the divorce epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s and the excesses of the so-called Sexual Revolution.
The age of easy and instantaneous connectivity, globalization, and related phenomena have created a new kind of “lonely crowd,” full of people who feel isolated, inadequate, insignificant — and resentful of being made to feel that way. There are many ways to assuage that loneliness, but many of them — family life, religion — have fallen out of fashion. Ordinary politics provides insufficient drama, as anybody who has observed the real business of government in action knows. Fantasy politics — I’m fighting the Nazis! — offers a lot more emotional oomph.
It’s a sad spectacle. It’s also a dangerous one.
A lonely, angry crowd is a lonely mob, one that already has discovered sterner stuff than chocolate milk.