Have You Noticed America Has Gotten Meaner?
Violence is the cardinal characteristic, the logo, the brand identity of fascism. Every fascist movement in history has lifted itself to power on the scaffold of violence
Blood alone moves the wheels of history.
“Have you noticed that people are getting meaner?” the villain asks in a Paramount+ promo for their new show Evil.
“What does it mean?” asks the “nice” character.
“It means,” says the evil character with a note of triumph in her voice, “that your side is losing.”
And here we are. The lede of an above-the-fold story in yesterday’s Washington Post lays it out:
“In the past 24 hours, there has been an uptick in the number of violent threats against lawmakers on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and all lawmakers on the committee are likely to receive a security detail…”
We need to discuss the violence and threats of violence now endemic to the GOP, because they signal a hopefully reversible — but possibly terminal — slide into fascism.
Fascism is violence.
Its philosophy is rooted in violence: the domination of the many by a few, whether the main instrument of that domination is personal physical violence, the violence of great wealth or political power being used to destroy one’s enemies, or unjustified violence inflicted by the state under color of law.
But at its core, fascism is rooted in physical violence, intimidation, and murder. It’s war brought into politics and governance.
Violence like this has its own power and its own attraction.
The media is drawn to it, making it the most powerful recruiting tool a fascist movement has.
Insecure, frightened men (and the occasional woman) participating in fascist violence find a sense of agency, of individual power and meaning, a sort of orgasmic release from a life of ordinariness and political impotence.
And make no mistake: the GOP has become the party of political violence.
Democrats treat the violence associated with today’s Republican Party as if it were coming from outliers, as if it’s “a few bad apples,” as if it’s simply a troublesome weirdness on the extreme periphery of the conservative movement.
We see this in their response to the violence of January 6th, to the threats of violence directed at members of the January 6th Committee who are now getting security details, and to the frequent but scattershot violence that erupts across the country almost daily.
Democrats watch threats of violence against school board members; against nurses and hospitals treating Covid; against abortion providers; against racial minorities and queer people who Republican legislators declare — and try to put into law — are less than human or “aberrations” that must not be tolerated in a “free society.”
The media continues to largely ignore those frequent moments when fascist-infiltrated police — the only group within our society who are legally authorized to use violence without consequence — overlook or overtly encourage the violence that breaks out when Americans dare stand up to fascist militias.
“It’s the exception,” the media notes, and moves on to the next story.
In fact, these displays of violence and the willingness to use violence are declarations. They are statements of purpose. They’re spoken and executed with pride.
They are assertions by fascists that they intend to exercise violence and its power up to and including the ultimate: the power to take human life.
Republicans and their media lionize Kyle Rittenhouse for showing up at a Black Lives Matter protest and killing two protestors. They celebrate police violence with “thin blue line” flags, and wave the all-black US flag that signifies the willingness to kill one’s political opponents.
They show up at protests heavily armed and wearing tee-shirts evoking General Pinochet with the slogan, “Free helicopter rides for liberals.” Their leader said there are “very good people on both sides” after his fascists murdered a young woman named Heather Heyer.
Republicans running for office feature guns or imply threats to kill people in their television and online advertising. Eric Greitens is just the latest in a long list of GOP shooters glorifying assault weapons and implying political violence. This is Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie’s Christmas Card:
These are all expressions of fascism.
When men like Rusty Bowers and Brad Raffensperger — who dared stop Trump’s criminal attempts to steal the 2020 election — describe how they were and continue to be threatened with violence, elected Republicans fall silent.
Arizona House Speaker Bowers endured violent threats outside his home through night after night as his daughter lay dying: this kind of violence is devoid of compassion. It is evil.
Not a word from Ronna Romney McDaniel about the embrace of violence by the base of the Republican Party she leads, not a word from congressional Republicans about the violence their own fellow conservatives now face, not a word from Republican media other than to cynically mouth phony excuses and justifications.
Because violence is now their brand. They revel in it.
They boast of it in ways that are often misinterpreted as either hyperbole or jokes, like when Sharron Angle (and others) warned of “Second Amendment solutions” to Democratic efforts, or when Donald Trump said he could murder someone on Fifth Avenue and still get elected.
Their fascist followers know better: these are proud statements of their willingness to use or endorse violence, and carry explicit threats.
Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
“[T]he propaganda of totalitarian movements which precede and accompany totalitarian regimes is invariably as frank as it is mendacious, and would-be totalitarian rulers usually start their careers by boasting of their past crimes and carefully outlining their future ones.
“The Nazis ‘were convinced that evil-doing in our time has a morbid force of attraction,’ … and experience has proved time and again that the propaganda value of evil deeds and general contempt for moral standards is independent of mere self-interest, supposedly the most powerful psychological factor in politics.
“The attraction of evil and crime for the mob mentality is nothing new. It has always been true that the mob will greet ‘deeds of violence with the admiring remark: it may be mean, but it is very clever.’”
When a nation goes fascist, it happens quickly. It takes people by surprise.
In 1919, Benito Mussolini started out with 300 armed volunteers, his Blackshirts. They began by terrorizing gay men, striking union members, and socialists; newspaper reports of their violence, beatings, and the occasional murder swept across Italy.
Over the next three years Mussolini’s Blackshirt militia burgeoned to over 20,000 men, so when, on the last day of October 1922, he directly confronted King Victor Emmanuel III with the threat of violence, the king gave in, dissolved the government, and appointed Mussolini Prime Minister of Italy.
No campaign, no election, just three years of unrelenting violence and the threat of more violence.
Hitler rose to power on the wings of violence as well, first in the Beer Hall Putsch and later, when he became Chancellor, through his volunteer militia the Brownshirts terrorizing gays, Jews, and union members. Paul von Hindenburg thought Hitler would set aside the violence, as promised, if he was given the power he demanded. Hindenburg didn’t understand fascism.
Violence is the cardinal characteristic, the logo, the brand identity of fascism. Every fascist movement in history has lifted itself to power on the scaffold of violence. And then continues to rule with violence.
Fascist media revel in the language of violence. They dehumanize the victims of their violence with words like “invaders” and “vermin” and “illegals.”
To justify the violence at the heart of their movement, they squeal a phony claim to victimhood: They think Democrats are trying to take their tax dollars. They fear gays are trying to groom their children. They believe teachers are indoctrinating their youth in socialism. Violence, they say, is their only option.
Over the past two decades, as this fascist movement has arisen in America and taken over the GOP, more than three-quarters of all politically motivated murders have been committed by rightwing often-Republican-aligned terrorists.
Terrorism is fascism. Isis and Al-Qaeda are fascist organizations, just like the various militias that attacked our Capitol on January 6th and today stalk our streets from the backs of pickup trucks while brandishing assault weapons.
For the Republicans in Congress, this is not a problem until violence is threatened against one of their own; when a lone mentally ill man calls police to confess he’s hallucinating voices telling him to kill Brett Kavanaugh, legislation is passed within days to protect the Court’s justices.
Two years earlier, when “men’s rights” advocate Roy Den Hollander murdered the 20-year-old son of Judge Esther Salas and was carrying detailed plans to kill Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor next, Republican Senator Rand Paul blocked legislation in the Senate to provide federal judges with that protection.
Not even one Republican objected to Paul’s obstruction, and Mitch McConnell let it stand. Violence is their brand.
When violence is threatened against the few remaining non-fascist Republicans, theoretically members of their own tribe, that’s just fine with the “base voter” fascists who now control the levers of power in the party. Just ask any of the Republicans who have testified before the January 6th Committee or who voted to impeach Trump.
Fascists justify their violence as necessary to protect their faith, their families, and the “identity” of their homeland. They will tell you it’s the unfortunate last-ditch “necessity” provoked by the “others” who “threaten our way of life.”
In reality, violence is not the fascist’s final, last-gasp option: it’s their first.
It’s their most powerful recruiting tool, showing, as it does, their dominance of society and society’s institutions.
It’s how they cow dissent.
It’s the weapon that provokes action, and fascists are all about action.
It creates chaos, and fascism needs chaos to tear down the existing structures of governance and law that they intend to replace.
The final cause to which fascist violence is directed is what Jefferson (and Hobbes) called bellum omnium in omnia: war of all against all. Every murderous act is designed intentionally to bring society closer to breakdown, so the fascists can openly kill their enemies — particularly people of color and “liberals” — in the streets of the nation.
It’s why Tim McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma Federal Building in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring another 680. It appears to be what motivated both the Las Vegas shooter who killed 58 people and the Boston Bomber. It was claimed by the Buffalo killer of 20 people in a supermarket, and the 2019 El Paso shooter who murdered 23 people.
It’s the story line of the two best-selling books within the militia movement, Camp of the Saints and The Turner Diaries. Each ends with mass slaughter leaving a nation of “pure” white Christian survivors, most holding well-used assault rifles as they stand atop piles of bodies.
Hannah Arendt noted in her 1969 essay “Reflections on Violence”:
“[T]he danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end.
“If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely.
“The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently demanded that Republicans “take back their party.” So far, they’re not listening.
Every day that Republicans refuse to seize and root out the fascist violence now associated with their party is another day closer to a dystopia like the one through which Hannah Arendt lived.
It can happen here.
Yes, I have definitely noticed. Fascism is mean and it is violent. You're so right! They are on a methodical path to a total take over as evidenced by Justice Samuel Alito. There's an article about this in the NY Times today by Charlie Savage. To me, they seem to be trying to kill democracy slowly - a death by a thousand cuts. Everyday we are finding out more and I appreciate Thom finding out where it’s happening and reflecting our feelings on it. Because it’s hard to believe - shocking and upsetting. It’s refreshing to hear a validation of this in Thom’s essays and weekday shows.
To me, especially as a woman, the Middle Ages (which is where Alito & who he serves are getting their basis for understanding the world) represented the worst of humanity: total cruelty and enslavement of the human spirit - especially anything deemed as having feminine qualities. It’s awful that they feel that their "freedom" will come when only they have total control to make the world exactly how they feel it should be instead of how it is - full of diversity; a diversity not established or controllable by "man." I hear about this from some right wing christian acquaintances. They express that they believe they "don't have religious freedom." Why? it's because they can't express bigotry without being criticized; they cannot openly oppress without someone standing up to it. By attempting to make the perpetrator of oppression the victim is a way to distract from the point - which is that they are causing pain and suffering to others. It's also a grandiosity that exists to cover their own shame of being afraid of feeling out of control and/or a personal loss of feeling strong and indispensable in society. I think we have to heal this on both the individual level and at a governmental level through stopping the take over of our democracy. They know this so they are trying to dismantle the democratic institutions where people learn to accept & appreciate diversity. It's hard to feel the shame that you've violated someone else's boundaries or somehow hurt them. When a person justifies violence, then they can rid themselves of feeling shame and humiliation.
Democrats have a lot of responsibility for the dire situation, but just as much?; I don't think it's even close. What the Democratic party has been able to do or not been able to do over the past four decades has been conditioned by the fact that the Republican party, after decades of being the perennial opposition party, figured out a way to win elections, not by offering but good public policy, but by activating a dormant religious right and by picking up the Jim Crow south once the Democrats fell out of favor with the segregationists after Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights and Voter Rights Acts and the subsequent southern strategy. For a multitude of reasons the American people shifted right and started voting Republican in big numbers at all levels of government, starting with Reagan's landslide victory over Mondale in 1984. I think there are times when society gets in a certain mood and tends to vote for one party over the other whether or not it's a very good idea in the long run. We saw that in the 1920s when Republicans were riding high with Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, whose laissez-faire economic policy led to the great depression. Those failures and the subsequent successes of FDR's New Deal kept voters in the Democratic camp for decades to come, up until the so called Reagan Revolution. I think one of the main things that turned voters against the Democratic party, especially the solidly middle and upper middle class ones who gained their status largely thanks to New Deal policies and Keynesian economics, was that they associated Democrats with the welfare state and excessive government regulation, and they weren't so much in favor of government helping the little guy any more. They wanted lower taxes, an even higher standard of living and a good retirement. Too much regulation could hurt their investment portfolio or pension fund. Right or wrong, they saw Republicanism as a better alternative and I think during this whole period since Reagan when his brand of conservatism has reigned, Democrats have had to dramatically moderate their tendency towards more progressive public policy in order to have any hope of winning elections in certain parts of the country. Clinton, who I think deep down is and was a flaming New Deal type liberal, is a perfect example. He was an incredibly astute politician and he saw the writing wall. Gingrich and the GOP were on a roll, the American people were with them and Clinton knew some power was better than no power, so he did what he had to do. This was the case with many other Democrats. Look, I'm aware of the shortcomings and failings of the Democratic party—ineffective messaging, uninspiring candidates, etc. etc. etc. But I just happen to think that the Democrats have an infinitely better vision for what the country needs now and in the future than the Republicans do. We always talk about the politicians and their successes or failings. But we often forget the, other side of the equation, the people, the voters. Sometimes the people, rightly or wrongly, just aren't buying what you're selling. The Republican party has done a very good job at selling a culture war that has gotten people to vote for them and against their own interests and well being, and, in my opinion, against the interests of the country as a whole. Sure Democrats have many faults, but I believe the Republican party is downright toxic and harmful, even nihilistic. If and when the Democratic party gains enough power that it can actually put its money where its mouth is and deliver the goods, my criticism will be strong and unwavering if it doesn't. In the meantime, I just want Democrats to win elections and Republicans to lose because it's very clear to me which party is more likely to move this country in the direction it needs to go. (I didn't even talk about the structural flaws in our electoral system that is making it possible for minority rule which is causing a lack of progress. For example, we have a 50/50 Senate while one party represents 41 million voters than the other. Can you guess which? The Electoral College needs to go, as well as gerrymandering.)