By now we’ve all heard of the latest horrible outbreak of slaughter: a shooting at a synagogue outside Pittsburgh where eleven people were killed by an armed white supremacist screaming, “All Jews must die!” (Israel’s chief rabbi condemned the assault but refused to say that it happened at a synagogue, because in the eyes of Israel’s fundamentalist rabbinate, any denomination other than Orthodox isn’t truly Jewish.)
Within the same span of a few days, there was also the “MAGA bomber“, who mailed pipe bombs to more than a dozen Democratic politicians and other targets of conservative hate. Luckily, this time no one was hurt and the suspect – a loudmouthed Trump supporter who lived in a van plastered with images of prominent liberals with crosshairs over their faces and was known for making death threats on social media – was quickly arrested.
These outbreaks of violence are symptomatic of something sick and dangerous that’s been uncorked in the American psyche. They’re just the most publicized incidents in a wave of racist and fascist violence that’s been going on since the election and even before.
From the the Nazi-wannabe mob who call themselves the “Proud Boys”, several of whom were just arrested for the beating of a counterprotester; to the killing sprees targeting women and black people; to Muslims, immigrants and other religious minorities… the list goes on and on. In nearly all cases, the perpetrators are angry, aggrieved white men who can’t stand the thought of sharing the planet with people who don’t look, speak, dress or believe like them.
The fact that this is happening now is an important clue to the psychology at work. The militia movement under Bill Clinton, and similar sovereign-citizen clownishness under Barack Obama, had an obvious motivation. Conservatives were out of power, they were angry and frustrated. But why in 2018? Conservatives won the last election; they control all the branches of the U.S. government and most of the statehouses. They’re closer to achieving their major policy goals than they’ve been in decades. Yet, arguably, they’re more angry and violent than ever. What do they have to be so mad about?If you understand how the fascist, alt-right and white supremacist mindset operates, this upwelling of anger is expected. Their ideology demands a total commitment to the us-or-them mindset that “pure” white Christians are the true bearers of civilization and everyone else is subhuman. They can’t be compromised with or appeased, because it’s our very existence that makes them angry, not our politics. What they want is to eradicate all opposition, in the genocidal sense. And the closer they think they are to achieving total victory, the more willing they become to resort to violence.
This isn’t a brand-new phenomenon. The American right has always trafficked in eliminationist rhetoric, and it’s always given rise to terrorism among their fringe. But what’s changed is how brazen they are – how willing they’ve become to cheerlead for racist rage in full public view.
It started at the top, with a presidential candidate who praised white supremacists, egged on his followers to beat down protesters, and gleefully trashed other American political norms. But precisely because this strategy worked for him, it’s not going to end when he’s out of office. Trump is reshaping the Republican party in ways that will live on after he’s gone. In the years to come, we can expect a wave of copycat mini-Trumps who shamelessly appeal to white nationalism, privileged victimhood and bigoted anger.
You can see this in the way that Trump’s formerly fiercest critics among the remnants of the old GOP, like Lindsey Graham, are now licking his boots. They’ve calculated that embracing Trumpism is a surer path to political survival than holding out against it. The only conservatives who can be honest about what’s happening are those who’ve quit the party, like Max Boot, who says that the GOP has become “a white-nationalist party with a conservative fringe”.
It goes without saying that the imminent midterm elections are a critical fork in the road for the next few decades. If the Democrats take back any branch of government, it will knock the deplorables back on their heels, hobble the worst parts of their agenda, and perhaps arrest America’s slide into white supremacy. If we don’t, it will send a loud and clear message to homegrown white terrorists, and the Republican racist-in-chief who nurtured them, that they can break the law, lie, cheat, even kill with impunity and will never face consequences. I wish I could say I was more optimistic.