I have a habit of over-intellectualizing current events. I want to trace the events back to their source, compare them to their historical forebears, think about how they cohere (or don’t) with my understanding of political ideology. I’m an academic. I like to dissect and reconstruct, analyze and synthesize. But I haven’t felt the urge to intellectualize recently, and this blog has been relatively barren as a result. Ever since Charlottesville, I’ve felt too sick to write.
I feel trapped in an emotional space where I am past being surprised but not past being appalled. I’m not numb, thankfully, although I sometimes wish I was. The result is that there’s almost nothing to say. Everyone halfway intelligent saw, or should have seen, this coming – the violence, the pathetic response of our pathetic president, the outrage from my side, the empty handwringing from the other. Although Charlottesville wasn’t surprising (the political aspect of the controversy was almost a rerun of the David Duke kerfuffle during the Republican primaries), the scenes from the rallies and the footage of the terrorism are appalling. Articles and essays can’t do it justice – I would urge everyone to go straight to the source, and watch the Vice documentary. (Fair warning: it’s not for the faint of heart.) While watching it, I felt sick and sad and filled with foreboding. If you take the white supremacists in the video seriously (and by now, you should), Heather Heyer won’t be their last victim.
But I think I’m ready to write now, even though I can’t get the images of the car and screams and the guns and the torches out of my head.
I’m reminded of a post that Josh Marshall wrote last year, at the apex of the violence at the Trump rallies. He titled it, “Someone Will Die”. Here’s an excerpt:
Today we appear to be going further and further into uncharted territory. After the cancellation of Trump’s event yesterday in Chicago, we had the incident at the rally in Dayton, Ohio in which a protestor, Thomas Dimassimo, jumped the security perimeter surrounding Trump and tried to rush the speaking platform. Dimassimo was charged with disorderly conduct and inducing panic and later released on bail. At a subsequent event and on Twitter, Trump claimed that Dimassimo was tied to ISIS, apparently on the basis of a hoax video his staff found on Youtube. At yet another event this evening Trump called for the mass arrest of protestors, noting that arrest records would leave an “arrest mark” and “ruin the rest of their lives.” Trump also repeatedly blamed “communist” Bernie Sanders for what now appear to be the almost constant protests and disruptions at his rallies.
For all the talk about Mussolini, let alone Hitler, George Wallace is the best analog in the last century of American politics – the mix of class politics and racist incitement, the same sort of orchestrated ratcheting up of conflict between supporters and protestors. As all of this has unfolded over the course of the day there have been numerous instances of Trump supporters calling for protestors to “go back to Africa” and another on video calling on them to “go to fucking Auschwitz.”
Is the man invoking Nazi concentration camps in that video an anti-Semite or just a ramped hater in a frenzy of provocation? I’m not sure we know. And as I’ll argue in a moment, in a climate of incitement and crowd action, it doesn’t necessarily matter.
It may sound like hyperbole. But this is the kind of climate of agitation and violence where someone will end up getting severely injured or killed. I do not say that lightly.
Marshall was wrong in the short-term but right in the long-term. No one has been killed at Trump’s rallies (yet), but his rhetoric ultimately led to the “climate of incitement and crowd action”, “of agitation and violence” that surfaced in Charlottesville. And, of course, he has shown no inclination to tamp down the anger and violence – it’s what got him elected in the first place.
The callback to George Wallace reminded me of one of Wallace’s most frightening quotes, uttered at a speech in Tennessee.
Wallace: You elect me the President, and I go to California or I come to Tennessee, and if a group of anarchists lay down in front of my automobile, it’s gonna be the last one they ever gonna want to lay down in front of!
Reminds you of Charlottesville, doesn’t it? In fact, Wallace couches the threat in such a way that it almost doesn’t come across as murder. It’s as if the anarchists had it coming – if only they hadn’t lain down in front of the car, they wouldn’t have been run over. Dan Carter, who wrote a thrilling biography of Wallace, called him “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics”, and I think he’s right. How else to explain Republican efforts in 6 separate states to protect drivers who run over nonviolent protestors? How can we not hear an echo in Christopher Cantwell’s remarks about the killing:
Cantwell: The video appears to show someone striking that vehicle when these animals attacked him again, and he saw no way to get away from them except to hit the gas, and sadly, because our rivals are a bunch of stupid animals, who don’t pay attention, they couldn’t just get out of the way of his car, and some people got hurt. And that’s unfortunate.
Vice: So you think it was justified?
Cantwell: I think it was more than justified. The amount of restraint that our people showed out there, I think, was astounding.
Marshall writes eloquently about the mob psychology that arises when pungent rhetoric reaches the ears of a large, receptive group of people:
I want to go back to something that happened earlier this month. At a Trump rally in Louisville on March 1st, a number of African-American protestors were ejected from the event. As they were being led out, they were heckled, pushed and shoved. One of the men doing the shoving was 75 year old Alvin Bamberger, a veteran and member of a local Korean War veterans association. Bamberger was videoed yelling at and repeatedly shoving a female, African-American protestor and the video went viral.
A few days later he sent a letter of apology to the head of his local veterans organization.
Here’s part of the text …
At first, he wrote, “everything seemed to be under control and mostly orderly. All that changed when Trump got to the stage. Protestors in the crowd became vocal and began pushing and shoving their way toward the stage. At one point I was physically knocked down and fell to the ground, losing my jacket (which was eventually returned to me). The protestors were holding up signs, chanting ‘black lives matter’ and pushing and shoving Trump supporters.
“Trump kept saying ‘get them out, get them out’ and people in the crowd began pushing and shoving the protestors,” Bamberger said. “Unfortunately a lot of this behavior was happening right next to where I was standing and having been pushed to the floor myself, my emotions got the best of me, and I was caught up in the frenzy. I physically pushed a young woman down the aisle toward the exit, an action I sincerely regret.”
Bamberger said he learned only afterwards that some of the Trump supporters “standing right next to me” were members of a white supremacist group.
“Unfortunately my state of mind after being knocked down and hurt myself, and being caught between a group of white supremacists and Black Lives Matter protestors contributed to my behavior however, there is no excuse for my actions,” he wrote.
I’ve seen various responses to this apology, some seeing it as insufficient and insincere, others seeing it as genuine and contrite. Some say he shifts the blame. If nothing else, this is no mere ‘I’m sorry if anyone took offense’ type nonsense non-apology. It is abject and unflinching. But set all that aside. That’s not what concerns me here. Bamberger’s overarching explanation rings very true to me. Indeed, it is backed up by decades of social science: People act very differently in crowd or mob situations than they do on their own. There are various theories as to just why this is the case – again, there’s a whole social science and group psychology literature about it. But crowd/mob situations are profoundly disinhibiting events. People sometimes do things they themselves not only regret but almost literally can’t believe they did.
The atmosphere at Wallace rallies was similarly toxic, if we believe the historical accounts from Carter and others. Here’s an excerpt from a Jacobin article about the parallels between Wallace and Trump:
[Wallace] loved barnstorming across the North, meeting eager audiences everywhere he went. He usually chose to speak at European ethnic social clubs, American Legion halls, or Veterans of Foreign Wars posts where he gleefully whipped up the traditionally Democratic audience. Along the way, he attracted violent racists. James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, worked briefly for his campaign in California.
Tom Turnipseed — Wallace’s campaign manager who later became a famous South Carolina liberal — recalled one unnerving interaction with a supporter:
I remember I was in a little town in south central Massachusetts called Webster. I went to the Polish American Club and the manager says . . . “When Governor Wallace is elected president,” he said, “he’s going to line up all these niggers and shoot them, isn’t he?”
New Republic columnist Richard Strout recognized the specter of fascism. Sitting in the upper balcony of a sold-out Madison Square Garden as Wallace whipped up the crowd, he wrote “There is menace in the blood shout of the crowds. You feel you have known this somewhere; never again will you read about Berlin in the thirties without remembering this wild confrontation here.”
If there is hope at all in these passages, it is the recognition that people in the mob are very different from the same people outside of it. Caught up the rhetoric and anger and heat of the moment, Bamberger resorted to physical violence. Outside of that climate, he seems at least somewhat apologetic.
And the same for Cantwell. When talking with Vice, in an environment in which he felt safe and comforted, he balefully intoned that “a lot more people are gonna die before we’re done here”. Outside of that environment, after being confronted with a warrant for his arrest by the police, he was reduced to a puddle of tears, crying, “I don’t know what to do.” If it makes you feel better, Chris, neither do I.