I try my best to not become too emotionally invested in political events. I figure that as a writer, it doesn’t do much good to be terrified, or despondent, or elated; TAI readers are better served by level-headed reasoning.
But I can’t pretend to write about the events in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday in that mode. This latest round of deadly political violence has me more afraid for my country than I have ever been before.
My parents, both Boomers, grew up in a time when the political system seemed to be breaking down. Their childhood TV screens flashed with images of domestic terrorism, riots, and assassinations, perpetrated by white supremacists and left-wing extremists alike.
My generation, born after the Cold War came to a close, has never experienced this kind of ambient uncertainty about American society’s basic stability. Yes, the 1990s saw race riots in Los Angeles and the bombing of Oklahoma City, but those took place against the backdrop of a competent government and a strong political consensus. Yes, there were the September 11 attacks, but those at least temporarily brought the country closer together.
We’ve had polarization and culture wars before. This is different. This feels different. Stretching back at least to Dylann Roof’s mass murder of black congregationalists in 2015, the country has been getting pushed closer and closer to the edge. The summer of 2016 saw the assassination of five police officers in Dallas by a black activist. Donald Trump’s rhetoric as a candidate flirted with political violence over and over again. And since his election, the temperature has only been escalating. A Montana congressional candidate physically attacked a reporter. There have been campus riots against right-wing speakers, and clashes between Leftists and neo-Nazis on the streets of Sacramento and elsewhere. It was less than two months ago that an anti-Trump activist opened fire on a group of Republican Congressmen playing baseball in Alexandria.
The events in Charlotesville—in which a neo-Nazi ran down anti-racist protesters after a white supremacist march, killing at least one person and injuring many more—were distinctively hideous. The anti-civilizational fascists of the alt-right, no longer confined to marginal online forums, were out in force in a storied American town, maiming people on the streets. The President whom they openly admire (former Klansman David Duke praised him in an interview at the march) deliberately equivocated when given the opportunity to condemn them. Maybe he was egging them on, or maybe he is simply so narcissistic that he cannot distance himself from anyone who has offered loyalty. It doesn’t matter. Neo-Nazi blogs delighted at the President’s non-response. Fascists are emboldened. More on the far-Left will become convinced that racism cannot be fought adequately within the political system.
The events of this weekend are evidence that, as Angela Nagle wrote in her recent book on the online culture wars, the “festering undergrowth of dehumanizing reactionary online politics [is] now edging closer to the mainstream.” And forces on the far-Left are gaining strength in response.
We don’t yet have the same body count from political violence that cast a shadow over the 1960s and 1970s. And yes, racist violence is not new in America. But the carnage over the weekend looks like just the latest step in a rapid march toward political extremism—a process of decay accelerated by a scandal-ridden Federal administration that is beloved by some of the most vile extremists and seen as illegitimate by many of its political opponents. Any outsider looking at America today would see a country struggling to cohere at the most basic level.
So I feel a deep sense of dread—that our social fabric is too corroded to channel disagreements through political institutions; that the American creed is battered and broken; that reciprocal demands for retribution between identitarian radicals will soon reach escape velocity.
Great countries can fall apart. I don’t know what that would look like for America. And I don’t know how to stop it.