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When we last left off I was concerned about civil discord, and I wondered how far things would go. This subject is one where it’s hard to be objective. When speaking of the sort of protests we saw over the inauguration weekend it’s difficult to know if we’re seeing a peaceful protest with completely admirable goals or if we’re seeing the beginnings of some sort of lawless revolution. When you look back through previous examples of things getting out of hand, it quickly becomes apparent how gradual everything is. For example, during the French Revolution, it was four years between the calling of the Estates General and the Reign of Terror. Looking back that seems quick, but four years is forever when you’re living through it, as we may be about to discover. As another example, Hitler was Chancellor of Germany for five years before he started World War II, and was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938. In other words each step towards calamity may seem innocuous by itself, but you still end up with a boiled frog.
All of this is to say that it would be super convenient if Trump turned into a demon on his first day in office or if the protests on inauguration day had immediately exploded in an orgy of violence. If any of those things happened, sensible people would immediately know who the bad guys are, and it would be easy to take sides and decide what to do, but as it was, just looking at the protests (I’ll leave other people to decide if Trump turned into a demon) we had some violence over the weekend, but not much. 217 people were arrested, a car or two got burned, some police officers were injured, etc. But I think most people probably feel like that’s fairly mild. And in fact, historically, we have had lots of interesting inauguration days though I imagine that this latest one had to set a record for something, maybe number of arrests?
All of this is to say, harkening back to an earlier episode, I don’t know if everything is going to be okay. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if the protests and violence and arrests are just the tip of the iceberg that is the Second Civil War or if they’re a marvelous expression of a healthy democracy. I don’t know if Trump is going to be the worst president ever, and I don’t know where the country is headed. There are some things (as I already mentioned) including the arrests over the weekend, that make me feel like this election might be different, but that doesn’t mean I’m predicting anything specific, just that it feels different. And I’m still not 100% sure why that is, but I have some theories and going forward we’ll have to see whether the data supports those theories or ends up disproving them.
Thus, in the absence of a desire or even an ability to say what’s going to happen I want to take this opportunity to remind you of how bad it is if certain things do happen, and point out some things that while not unambiguous, nevertheless cause me concern. Further I think we aren’t sufficiently afraid of violence and chaos. We often fool ourselves into thinking change of any sort will be easy and straightforward, when generally it is anything but.
As you can imagine I’m not the only one to worry about civil discord and the possibility that the current divisiveness will lead to something really bad. There have been several articles on the subject recently, some more alarming than others. I don’t agree with everything in these articles (as I’ve already said, I don’t know what’s going to happen) but there was an observation in one article in particular which encapsulated much of my concern. The author, David Hines, was not someone I was familiar with, but he kind of nailed it.
Political violence is like war, like violence in general: people have a fantasy about how it works.
This is the fantasy of how violence works: you smite your enemies in a grand and glorious cleansing because of course you’re better.
Grand and glorious smiting isn’t actually how violence works…
I think this is an important point. Regardless of what you think will happen, regardless of your preferred outcome, you generally have an overly optimistic view of how well your plan is going to work. And this isn’t just an issue with violence. Republican’s have an optimistic view of how easy it will be to replace Obamacare. Democrats had a rosy view of how effective Obamacare was going to be. The guy I mentioned in my last episode who thought Obama was a Lightworker had a seriously exaggerated view of what Obama would be able to do, and there are going to be a lot of disappointed Trump voters in the very near future. But of course as bad as it is to be wrong about Obamacare or the effectiveness of a given president, being wrong about violence is a thousands times worse. Hines continues:
I’ve worked a few places that have had serious political violence. And I’m not sure how to really describe it so people get it.
This is a stupid comparison, but here: imagine that one day Godzilla walks through your town.
The next day, he does it again.
And he keeps doing it. Some days he steps on more people than others. That’s it. That’s all he does: trudging through your town, back and forth. Your town’s not your town now; it’s The Godzilla Trudging Zone.
That’s kind of what it’s like.
I’m reasonably sure that the people who were protesting last weekend do not want Godzilla to trudge back and forth through their town. I’m sure most of them think that if they can just educate people about how bad Trump is that the nation will come to its senses and he’ll be run out of town by February. And when that blessed day occurs everyone, old and young, Republican and Democrat, Clinton Supporter and Trump Voter will all dance in the street in celebration. Okay maybe that’s all an exaggeration, but in starting their protests so early and so violently, I’m not sure what they do expect to happen. In other words however minimal the violence was over the weekend, if this is the sort of protest caused by Trump’s mere existence, where else is there to go when Trump actually starts doing something objectionable?
Of course, as I’ve already mentioned there are only two paths available in this situation. You can attempt to legally remove Trump or you can use some manner of violence. Let’s look at the “legal means” option. Within that option there are a further two options for removing Trump legally: the 2020 election, and impeachment. I assume based on the enormous number of articles on the subject, that impeachment is the preferred option. The problem with that is the Republicans control both the House and Senate. To even get impeachment started you would need to have 24 Republican Representatives defect (and of course you’d still need 100% of the Democrats). Once you’ve done that, then to actually remove him from office you’d need to have 21 Republican Senators defect as well (that’s 40% of all the Republican Senators). Which is to say that while a lot of people might be mad right out of the gate, it’s unlikely that Republican members of congress are going to impeach their guy right after he’s sworn in, particularly after having the other side in control of the executive branch for the last eight years.
It is this extreme desire to get rid of Trump and the colossal gap between it and the extreme unlikelihood of it being done legally that makes me think that we are particularly vulnerable to the other option of removing Trump: the violent one. In other words I think a lot of people are getting ready to summon Godzilla.
Of course there is a third option, which is to accept that Trump won the election and to do the best you can to help him be successful or at least don’t actively attempt to remove him. Of course this means “normalizing” him which is something none of these protesters want to do, and is one more reason why I’m on the lookout for a giant atomic monster on the horizon.
Look, I don’t like Trump, given the choice I would have chosen someone else to be president. (Though as long as I have the ability to choose whomever I want, I wouldn’t choose Clinton either.) But this sort of what-if thinking is pointless, because I don’t have the option to magically decide that someone else is going to be president. I had one vote. I used it, and as expected it didn’t make much of a difference, which while unfortunate, was exactly the outcome I expected. And just like the protesters and everyone else in the country I can try to impeach him, I can try to overthrow the government violently, or I can normalize him. That’s the reality.
This is not to say that people who are protesting or marching aren’t dealing with reality. To be clear I am fine with peaceful demonstrations. It’s in the first amendment and, frankly, if Trump does certain things (in particular censorship) I’ll be right out there with them. Also, it’s possible that some or even most of the people out there just want to exercise influence on how Trump behaves, they don’t want to get rid of him, but insofar as they do want to get rid of him they are engaging in Godzilla blindness. The unwillingness to understand that if they really won’t compromise, and if they really want get rid of Trump before 2020, it may be that their only path is a violent one.
Of course as Hines points out, when the protestors (and other Trump opponents) imagine violence, they imagine that it will be quick, painless, and that if there is any smiting it will only involve their opponents. In this fantasy the vast majority of the Trump supporters will be converted to this righteous vision and those who don’t will be dealt with speedily. Of course additionally the protestors are convinced they’re on the right side of history, and perhaps they are, but that doesn’t mean the Trump supporters are just going to roll over and play dead, particularly, since, on this occasion, they have the law on their side. They followed the rules and got their guy elected.
I know that to many people this is going to appear alarmist. “People are just protesting. That’s completely legal. Read the First Amendment. Any talk of a Second Civil War is ridiculous.” I hope they’re right. And if I were betting, I certainly wouldn’t bet on civil war. In order of probability here’s how I would rank it:
- Trump serves out his entire four years, it’s chaotic, but nothing crazy happens.
- Trump is removed from office, in some way that may look like impeachment if you squint, but is fundamentally outside of the law.
- Trump does something genuinely worthy of impeachment and gets removed.
- Outbreak of serious violence (100+ dead) or some manner of secession crisis.
You may wonder why I am so worried about possibility number four if I also think it’s the least likely to happen. Once again, as I’ve said over and over, some things are so bad that if you’re wrong about them, it doesn’t matter what you were right about, and having Godzilla trudge through your town is one of those things. But I’ve already covered that possibility at some length. I think we need to look at possibility number two, Trump is removed from office by some process of vague legality. You may not be 100% clear what I mean by this. I have talked about their only being two options (if you reject normalization) law and violence. But of course there’s a continuum in between those two ends. Which is to say there’s violence and then there’s VIOLENCE!
As an example imagine if there were riotous demonstrations in every major city for months. And by riotous I mean some people get arrested, some windows are broken, people frequently receive minor injuries, but no one dies. First off, does this scenario seem impossible? Not to me, in fact in some respects I’m surprised it isn’t already happening (and it did happen in the immediate aftermath of the election). Second is it possible that if it went on long enough that Trump might resign? That I’m not so clear about, he is pretty stubborn. But if he did, would it be legal? Technically, perhaps, but legal how? Yes, a president can resign, we saw that with Nixon. But this is different. This is someone resigning not because it’s obvious he’s going to be impeached this is someone resigning because of pressure. Pressure of what? The pressure of violence.
Now perhaps this veiled threat of violence is fine, certainly it’s better than actual violence, but I would opine that the rule of law is not nearly as elastic as most people want to believe. When people abuse the law, it weakens its perceived fairness and makes people less likely buy into the entire system. And without this implied social contract it’s difficult for the rule of law to continue. Which means that possibility number two, the pseudo-legal removal of Trump, is better than violence, but it’s still bad. You’ve still fundamentally rewritten the rules of the game in a way that makes future violence far more likely. If all the Trump supporters suddenly feel like their vote was valueless because six months into Trump’s term he’s forced out by the continual protests, how does that affect their desire to vote and participate in the future? Does this scenario make violence more or less likely? Does it make the secession of Texas more or less likely? To repeat my point, there’s violence or the rule of law, there’s not some better, secret third option. Any conceivable scenario for getting rid of Trump which doesn’t involve actually following the rules and standards for an impeachment would have to rely on violence. It may only be the threat of violence, it may be only implied violence, but it still involves violence.
Perhaps you remain unconvinced. Perhaps you think that Trump is bad enough that it doesn’t matter what you end up resorting to to get rid of him, it was worth it. First I would caution you against Godzilla blindness, and thinking that it’s going to be easy. Second I think you may be underestimating the fragility of our institutions. I have talked before about how fragile the US system of government seemed when it was first created, up to as late as the Civil War. I would say that it is still fragile and getting more fragile with each year. You can blame it all on Trump if you want, but it’s actually been growing more divisive and consequently more fragile, for a long time now and Trump is only the latest victim, or perhaps America is the victim, it’s hard to say, If you’re conservative you might point to the resignation of Nixon as starting the whole thing off. Or perhaps the Clarence Thomas or Robert Bork hearings. If you’re a liberal you’d probably point to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, or maybe you want to go all the way back to McCarthyism. In all of these cases the rule of law was weakened, perhaps imperceptibly, but it all accumulates, and someday it will break. I don’t know that this is when it will break, but I do know that the trend is accelerating.
To pull everything together, I think there are three reasons to be concerned about escalating violence. The first is the strength of the reaction against Trump right from the start. If it’s already this bad on day one, how bad is it going to be on day 50 or day 500? The second is the gap between how strongly people want to get rid of Trump and how difficult it will be to accomplish legally. The third is the general increase in divisiveness, which has been going on in the background over the last several decades. To these three I’d like to add one final point. The increased acceptance of violence, particularly if it’s committed by people on the left.
Over the inauguration weekend Richard Spencer was sucker punched. If you don’t know who Richard Spencer is, he’s variously described as a white nationalist, a white supremacist, even a literal Nazi. In the wake of that punch columnist, Alex Griswold decided to tweet:
I wonder how many people cheering the Nazi Punch realize that a punch to the head can kill or permanently disable a man.
The reaction to this tweet was overwhelming. And I’ll let him describe it:
The tweet took off, and not in a good way. Literally hundreds of people responded, all saying that they would have loved if the attacker had killed Spencer. Some went further, calling for the extrajudicial killing of all Nazis.
It was an eye-opening reaction. The reason I penned the tweet was because I thought the liberal consensus that serves as the bedrock of the American society was intact. I had this whole spiel planned about how if we as a society endorse violence against one Nazi, we’re responsible if it leads to worse violence, maybe even murder, where do you draw the line, blah blah blah. I thought it was more or less self-evident that you don’t murder people on the street for expressing views you don’t like. I thought we were all the same page, and I was wrong.
You may disagree that this represents an increase in the acceptance of violence from just the left. You may argue that this just represents an increase in the acceptance of violence period. Perhaps, but if so that’s almost as bad, and maybe even worse. Still I’m of the opinion that this acceptance is far more pronounced when violence is practiced by the left.
I actually try to avoid just talking about the left (or the right) as this giant monolith. Though it’s more difficult than you might imagine, and I can’t always devote an entire episode to explaining in detail what I mean by a specific term. For now let’s just say that I am using left in a fairly narrow sense. I am not claiming that any person who ever voted for a democrat is a violence obsessed fiend. But as to why I think it’s more a feature of the left…
Imagine if someone had walked up to a prominent female black activist (Sherri Shepard? Leslie Jones? Michelle Obama? Obviously I’m out of my wheelhouse here) and sucker punched them in the head? Imagine the response in the media, and ask yourself whether that response would have been more negative, more positive or about the same? Ideally it would have been about the same, but I’m 100% confident that it would not have been. Specifically I’m 100% sure that the New York Times would not have run an article the next day asking if it was okay to punch black female activists.
In the end while it would be nice if you agreed with all four of my reasons for expecting, or rather fearing an increase in violence, that’s really not the central goal of this episode. Rather my central goal is illustrate that if you decide to do things outside of the law, that you are implicitly choosing violence and that the choice of violence is much worse than you imagine. In the end Godzilla doesn’t care about the righteousness of your cause or the awfulness of Trump. He just keeps trudging back and forth… back and forth…