A Guest Post by David Hines
At the start of 2017, America looks to be in for a stretch of serious political turmoil. Accordingly, it makes sense to look at previous such period to see what lessons can be learned. One invaluable resource is Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, which provides a masterful overview of political violence in the 1970s.
We tend to think about the process of radicalization in terms of production of Shock Troops—unshameable actors, like the Weatherman bombers, or the Puerto Rican separatist group FALN, or the cop-killing Black Liberation Army. But as Burrough’s history shows, Shock Troops in isolation faced real operational challenges, and tended to be imprisoned or killed. The most effective Shock Troops had support from Institutions: organizations controlled by the Left that operate for the benefit of its people (providing recruits, training, material support, and the like), both during the operation and afterward. For example, it’s impossible to imagine the leader of an abortion clinic bombing ring getting probation and getting an academic job, but Weatherman’s Bernadine Dohrn went on to a career as a law professor lasting over twenty years. The Puerto Rican separatist group FALN foiled several initial attempts at prosecution because they had effectively co-opted an Episcopal Church charity to the point that the Church advocated on their behalf. When finally convicted, years later, FALN faced decades in prison—but for all that time, backers pushed for their clemency, and eventually got it. Black radicals, who largely lacked such support, tended to wind up dead (a noteworthy exception being the radical professor Angela Davis, who was ensconced comfortably in academia as part of its credentialed class).
You can get a sense of what political violence in 2017 America might look like if you look at the current landscape. If it happens, political violence isn’t going to start from nowhere. The Left and the Right are going to start with the resources, capabilities, and techniques they currently have. It’s not fun and it’s not pretty—and, despite what partisans on both sides think, it wouldn’t be a short, glorious fight. People fantasize about political violence, much in the same way that they tend to fantasize about war. The fantasy is that it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s glorious, and it’s fun. In reality, political violence, like war, is neither of those things. Political violence is a long, horrible, brutal grind, and it poisons the societies where it operates.
If political violence ramps up, we should expect the normalization of extremists. Extremists don’t get mainstreamed when the mainstream invites them in; they get mainstreamed when they have organization, logistics, and manpower that the mainstream finds useful. Lefties don’t go to protests organized by real live communists because they’ve been sold on communism; they go because the communists are great at getting the word out and organizing port-a-potties. If events like the riots at Berkeley continue, expect Righties who don’t want to be attacked to get serious about organizing countermeasures, and expect the people who benefit from those countermeasures to warm to those Righties who provide them.
Black bloc participants running at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Source
The importance of Institutions and Shock Troops means that, in 2017, the political violence deck is heavily stacked to favor the Left. A lot of people on the Right viscerally object to this idea. The Right, after all, has a lot of guns. But guns mean nothing if they’re not pointed in the right direction, and the Left’s unending stream of protests, marches, and direct actions mean that they’re much more practiced than Righties are at herding their cats. Anarchist black blocs who pull off a riot can number in the scores or hundreds. By contrast, you may have noticed that most successful perpetrators of right-wing political violence are loners. This is because if two hard Righties get together, one of them is almost inevitably an informant for the FBI.
As a result, if political violence begins in earnest in the United States the Left and Right will have very different capabilities. A lone perpetrator can pull off a bombing, for example, or property damage, but not a riot. Accordingly, the Left has many more options and a much greater amount of tactical flexibility than does the Right. The Left also excels at allowing its people, especially its radicals, to rise, which creates a much deeper activist and leadership bench. Putting it bluntly: assassinating prominent Righties would adversely impact their movement. Assassinating prominent Lefties would not.
Could things really get that far? It’s not inconceivable. Even now, we’re already seeing the formation of public enemies lists: Chuck Johnson of Gotnews.com has published the names of everyone arrested in the inauguration riots, and for months a twitter bot scraping campaign contribution records has been posting names, hometowns, and workplaces of Trump supporters, effectively open-sourcing an enemies list for anyone who wants one.
The good news, if there is any: early on, it’s in even the most radical parties’ interests to keep violence low-level. There’s more political hay to be had in blaming your opponent for anything that goes wrong, especially if you can provoke them into serious violence.
The bad news: if that changes, it’ll change very quickly.