History will remember 2018 as the last year Republicans got to eat at restaurants. Which is not so bad if you’re a coastal elite like me, with access to Uber Eats and a penchant for dining sur le divan. But I imagine it will take just a little bit of savor out of Mitch McConnell’s visits back home if his every attempt to eat out in Louisville ends as last week’s did, with some anonymous troglodyte dumping the senator’s rice and beans on the sidewalk and inviting him to leave the country.
I don’t want to make too much of the Resistance’s sundry efforts to encourage agents of the regime to cook at home. They’re doing these things because they can’t do anything else. Because, for the next few weeks at least, they don’t control any branch or department of government that can make a difference. And so they hector and heckle any face they recognize from an MSNBC rap sheet, and they call bicameral legislatures racist, and they dream feverish dreams of felonious frat-boy drunkards both real (que tal, Beto!) and summoned from the dark heart of the Devil’s Triangle.
I suspect that our institutions will swiftly regain their legitimacy should the Democrats retake them, and that in that event the resisters will no longer feel the need to chase Cornyns through airports as if they were Kardashians, much less to mail fake ricin to Susan Collins’s mister. (Fake anthrax was big after 9/11, like cargo shorts and Nickelback; post–Breaking Bad, ricin is having its moment.)
But since we’re not there yet, it’s worth discussing just how foolish, and how potentially catastrophic, are the politics of light assault and minor battery. This current strategy, near as I can tell, started to cohere with the “punch a Nazi” mantra that emerged around the time of the white-nationalist jamboree in Charlottesville.
I said at the time and still believe that nobody really understood how insane “Punch a Nazi” is as a piece of rhetoric, much less as a practical recommendation. Why? Well, there have been Nazis for about 100 years, and for roughly a combined 90 of them, the thing to do about Nazis was to argue with them, condemn them, or just roll your eyes and ignore them.
For those other ten years, though . . . Well, for those ten years the thing to do about Nazis was to create a fearsome and all-subsuming industrial war machine of a like never before seen on earth, and to mortgage the fate of the West in order to kill or subdue as many of those Nazis as possible.
Knuckle sandwiches never really figured into it.
It is in all times and places naïve to imagine that a politics of PG-13 violence, of half measures and threats and pushing and shoving, can be sustained and reliably controlled. As if our world were an old episode of The A-Team in which Howling Mad Murdock and B. A. Baracus hose down the bad guys with a thousand rounds of 7.62 millimeter and never so much as graze a one of them. But the particular theory on which the present set of woke palookas base their stratagem is especially dumb.
Consider, it is only if the people telling us to “punch a Nazi” are wrong about the nature and danger of their purported enemies that public shaming, threats, and occasional violence will work to subdue them. But if these people are right about their enemies, if Republican voters constitute a mass of bloodthirsty reactionaries ready to serve as foot soldiers in a violent, fascist post-America, then punching them is probably the wrong tack. After all, they’ve got all the guns.
I realize it’s very easy to get macabre or hysterical when even abutting the subject of hypothetical civil conflict. I’m not trying to suggest I find such developments likely, much less inevitable. But it does us well to remember that violence in politics is the rule, not the exception. Delicate are the levers that shame and cajole both the reactionary and the revolutionary elements at our fringes into obeying the admonishments of the greater American center (which includes, I hope, most of us, both conservative and liberal). The norms were built slowly, painstakingly, over decades and centuries, but can be undone much more quickly. Just ask Steve Scalise. Or the family of Heather Heyer, killed by a Charlottesville terrorist.
Put it another way: Everywhere, our present political moment is marked by escalation, and by the acceleration of escalation. What a strange and risky thing it is to bet that this dynamic won’t apply to our methods of public demonstration. To think both sides will in perpetuity be content to bring only fists to a fistfight.