Donald Trump; Kathy Griffin; Bernie Sanders (Getty/Molly Riley/AP/Richard Shotwell/Jae C. Hong)

How our politics became a blood sport: The dangerous radicalization of both right and left

Partisan paralysis has brought new energy to both the far right and far left. It's exciting, but it won't end well


Matthew Sheffield
June 1, 2017 9:00AM (UTC)

The systemic failure of both the major parties' elites to adequately respond to the side effects of mechanization and globalization — particularly the real decline of wages with respect to inflation and the great decrease in good-paying jobs for those with less education — has gradually radicalized American politics and society. The provocations and recriminations that Donald Trump has injected into our politics ever since he declared his presidential candidacy have only accelerated the trend.

Initially, most of the radicalization began on the right as Republican political strategists found it easier to use divisive cultural issues like abortion, homosexuality and religion to motivate people to support a political agenda primarily related to reducing taxes on the rich and cutting spending — positions that have never been popular with a wide public. Instead of running on the blatantly anti-government platform that led to Barry Goldwater’s catastrophic defeat in 1964, conservatives ever since have run on cultural populism to cover for their lack of economic populism.

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Libertarian means to traditionalist ends” was the dictum for right-leaning intellectuals, while fighting the “San Francisco Democrats” was the sales pitch for the conservative masses. It was identity politics avant la lettre.

While some of the cultural conservatives who left the Democratic Party undoubtedly did so out of racial animus, there were also many others who were simply interested in reducing the personal tragedies of poverty, divorce and abortion. Instead of realizing that more access to birth control, higher minimum wages and targeted spending could help to reduce all three, however, they became convinced that abstinence-only education and shrinking the government were the only real solutions to the problems they sought to solve.

Unfortunately for the cultural conservatives who migrated into the Republican Party, conservative elites were much more interested in cutting taxes than they were in criminalizing abortion or homosexuality. While interested in cutting the government, Goldwater’s heirs could never muster popular support for the idea. Politicians who campaigned on "small government," from Ronald Reagan to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then George W. Bush, could never really manage to reduce federal spending and slash the budget, even when they won elections.

When libertarian means were enacted, however, they proved essentially useless in helping the cultural conservatives reach their traditionalist ends. Lower taxes didn’t mean less poverty, abstinence-only education just led to more teen pregnancies, and removing regulations on Wall Street's behavior had no effect at all on the decline of faith.

While a handful of right-leaning intellectuals like David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have been willing to admit that the American right’s anti-government goals are both undesirable and impossible to achieve, the immense conservative policy apparatus funded by the Koch brothers and their allies has instead decided to keep on partying like it’s 1979.

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After decades of failure at realizing their larger values, grassroots conservatives — rather than rejecting the anti-government, insurgent mentality that has led to repeated setbacks — have instead become trapped in a radicalization loop whereby they blame “the left” or “the Republican establishment” for their own failures in vision and competence.

Instead of a “party of ideas” politics, the American right has increasingly veered into the semiotic realm. It didn’t matter that former president “Dubya” destabilized the Islamic world and exploded the federal budget deficit — at least he was against “limousine liberals” like former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and Tom Daschle, the party's former Senate leader.

Linked to the growing sense of malaise on the right was the realization that recent Hispanic and Asian immigrants to the U.S. are much less likely to fall for the cultural populism that’s powered Republican victories since Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential triumph. Instead of seeing the influx of newcomers as a means of escaping the white identity politics that had kept them under the heel of libertarian billionaires, however, religious conservatives in the early 2000s began to embrace the concept of a “demographic winter,” the idea that many Western problems originate not in governments’ failures to address their citizens’ problems but rather from excessive numbers of nonwhite immigrants. Author Kathryn Joyce summed up the argument in a 2008 report in The Nation:

Europe is failing to produce enough babies — the right babies — to replace its old and dying. It’s "the baby bust," "the birth dearth," "the graying of the continent": modern euphemisms for old-fashioned race panic as low fertility among white "Western" couples coincides with an increasingly visible immigrant population across Europe. The real root of racial tensions in the Netherlands and France, America’s culture warriors tell anxious Europeans, isn’t ineffective methods of assimilating new citizens but, rather, decades of "antifamily" permissiveness — contraception, abortion, divorce, population control, women’s liberation and careers, "selfish" secularism and gay rights — enabling "decadent" white couples to neglect their reproductive duties. Defying the biblical command to "be fruitful and multiply," Europeans have failed to produce the magic number of 2.1 children per couple, the estimated "replacement-level fertility" for developed nations (and a figure repeated so frequently it becomes a near incantation). The white Christian West, in this telling, is in danger of forfeiting itself through sheer lack of numbers to an onslaught of Muslim immigrants and their purportedly numerous offspring.

Long before Donald Trump began leveraging the same racist fears promoted by the alt-right, other Republicans began doing so as well, as Joyce documented:

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Such predictions are winning the ear of top US conservatives, with Mitt Romney taking time during his campaign exit speech on February 7 [in 2008] to warn that "Europe is facing a demographic disaster" due to its modernized, secular culture, particularly its "weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for human life and eroded morality." With this, the American Christian right has hit on a potent formula: grafting falling Western birthrates onto old morality arguments to craft a tidy cause-and-effect model that its members hope will provide their ideology an entry into European politics.

As all these factors were radicalizing right-wing politics, different forces were working on the left as conservative electoral victories made it increasingly difficult for liberals to obtain what they wanted out of politics as well. For years, progressive activists accepted the Democratic leadership’s claims that Republican intransigence alone was to blame for such things as former President Barack Obama's refusal to consider a single-payer "Medicare for all" plan during the drafting of his signature health care proposal. The GOP was also blamed for failing schools and corruption and incompetence in cities that had been run by Democrats for generations.

The largely unexpected popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential challenge to the dominant Democratic order ought to have provided party elites a wake-up call that their old nostrums were no longer persuasive. Instead, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign ran on a milquetoast promise to "make history" and an overall message of “at least we’re not crazy.”

As the GOP took and retained control over Congress in 2010 — even in the face of what appeared to be a built-in demographic disadvantage — Democrats also began to embrace a politics of symbolism rather than accomplishment. Instead of trying to lead the way in reforming urban politics and prosecuting bankers who lied to the public, Democratic elites encouraged protests by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, betting that such activist groups were organized enough to motivate left-wing voters to show up at the polls but not enough to prove mutinous. The blue-collar whites who had built the Democratic Party into a majority, well who cares about them, anyway.

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The left and right’s dueling symbolic politics came to a head in the Clinton-Trump contest last year.

In late October, left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore predicted exactly what ended up happening:

“Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history — and it will feel good,” Moore told an audience gathered to hear about his movie “Michael Moore in TrumpLand.”

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The former pro-wrestling and reality TV star was going to win the election, Moore argued, because he understood far better than Clinton did that people were fed up with the old order.

“Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting, and that’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump,” Moore said. “He is the human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for, the human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.”

Since Trump’s unexpected (including by him) victory, Democratic politics have become even more symbolic as the party has found itself entirely shut out of political power. Frustrated liberals are taking up yoga, visiting their therapists and wearing safety pins, instead of throwing the Democratic leadership out on their rears.

Other liberals are going even further. Comedian Kathy Griffin filmed herself holding up a make-believe severed Trump head, an echo of comedian George Lopez's tweet featuring an illustration of the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo holding up Trump's head above the words “Make America Great Again.” Rapper Snoop Dogg has posted a video of himself pretending to shoot a clown dressed to resemble Trump.

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Still others on the left, particularly within the radical “antifa” movement, are engaging in outright violence against Trump supporters. On Saturday police in Berkeley, California, announced that a former college professor named Eric Clanton will face three counts of assault with a deadly weapon. According to officials, Clanton repeatedly struck pro-Trump demonstrators in the head with a large bike lock while at a political rally.

The day before, Linwood Kaine, the son of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine — Hillary Clinton's running mate last year — was among several protesters charged with crimes related to their attempts to enter a pro-Trump rally using mace, fireworks and smoke bombs.

While left-wingers who engage in violence and theatrical confrontation might imagine that they are helping ostracize the far right, their conduct only aids efforts by neo-Nazis to fuse themselves with the Republican mainstream. A poster on the white nationalist forum /pol/ on 8chan made this point recently:

My 70 y/o mom was a basic indy voting normie a year ago. Now she’s all but telling me we need to gas the cultural marxists and exterminate the muslims. This is all because of the stupidity of the last year. All the safe space shit, the 4000 genders, riots, [jihadist] attacks, white genocide, etc. . . . She’d literally just look the other way as commies and muslims are genocided knowing it needs to be done. My brother is going the same way.

Antifa is our greatest ally. Their insanity is pushing the normies to the far right.

The effect seems to be working. Not only are conservative websites starting to defend and even glorify violent white supremacist activists, mainstream Republicans like Montana's Greg Gianforte, are now engaging in assault without negative political repercussions. He was elected to Congress regardless.

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Not only has Gianforte’s admitted act of beating Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs yielded no real penalty from GOP leaders, his action has been praised by conservative commentators. A Fox News morning-show host even praised the future House member for having dispensed “a little bit of Montana justice.”

Townhall columnist Kurt Schlichter is among several conservatives who have defended Gianforte using the elaborate argument that since left-wingers hate conservatives and enjoy assaulting them (conflating attacks on white supremacists like Richard Spencer with attacks on ordinary Trump supporters), it’s  legitimate for right-wingers to engage in violence as well:

We don’t like the new rules — I’d sure prefer a society where no one was getting attacked, having walked through the ruins of a country that took that path — but we normals didn’t choose the new rules. The left did. It gave us Ferguson, Middlebury College, Berkeley, and “Punch a Nazi” – which, conveniently for the left, translates as “punch normals.” . . .

We all know it was wrong for Greg Gianforte to beat up Ben Jacobs. But we also know the general attitude of the media is that when we conservatives get beat-up by leftists it’s perfectly excusable — even laudable — and thanks to the fact that Twitter is forever, we now know that Ben Jacobs himself specifically thinks it’s A-OK to slug conservative kids. So can someone tell me why anyone should be shocked that we conservatives refuse to devote one iota of caring to poor Ben’s wedgie?

This isn’t a good thing. This is nothing to be proud of. We should not be happy that our society is heading toward the lowest common denominator, which itself is in freefall. But the alternative is worse. Should we allow ourselves to continue to be figuratively and literally beaten up while smiling at our own purity, secure in the knowledge that even though our dignity and freedom are stripped from us, we have not fought back? Not happening.

Politics has now become a blood sport just as it did in the 1960s. Unfortunately, today's violent radicals have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors even as today's journalists are more interested in random nonsense posted by Donald Trump on Twitter.


Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via m.sheffield@salon.com or follow him on Twitter.

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