The Ethics of Political Violence
As some of you all may be aware, the protests of a Trump rally in San Jose turned violent:
Donald Trump supporters were mobbed and assaulted by protesters on Thursday night after the candidate’s campaign rally in California.
The violence broke out after the event in San Jose wrapped up just before 8 p.m. local time (11 p.m. ET). Some Trump supporters were punched. One woman wearing a “Trump” jersey was cornered, spit at, and pelted with eggs and water bottles.
Police held back at first but eventually moved in. San Jose Police Sgt. Enrique Garcia told NBC News that several protesters were arrested and one officer was assaulted in the melee.
By and large, the response was largely condemnatory, crossing the ideological spectrum. It turns out, violence against attendees of a rally doesn’t go over especially well. For the most part, the main conflict occurred not in whether it was wrong, but why it was wrong. Liberal Chris Hayes and conservative Becket Adams objected to a large number of people framing it as a matter of counterproductivity, saying that it’s not wrong because it’s likely to backfire but it’s wrong because it’s wrong to be violent. Others stuck mostly to tactics. Some, however, objected to the objections:
If you too believe he’s a fascist, then ask yourself what it means to concern troll poor, Latino folks who take that belief seriously.
— Emmett Rensin (@emmettrensin) June 3, 2016
This was itself a common refrain, from several quarters. Epoch Times’s Jonathan Zhou (a Trump sympathizer) used it to blame the media for the violence in a Sarah-Palin-crosshairs-manner. Vice’s Michael Tracey (who seems to support Bernie but also hate people who hate Trump) argued that people need to decide whether Trump is a threat to liberal democracy or whether violence is unjustified because you can’t hold both positions together. This is a refrain I’ve heard quite a bit of in other contexts, mostly from liberals who seem to doubt people like me really oppose Trump: If Trump is so bad, why don’t you take even more extreme measures in your opposition to him? If Trump is a threat to this country, then isn’t anyone who supports him also such a threat?
There is some logic to this. Can we really say that political violence is never morally justified? That’s not a very tenable position in a world where others are quite willing to be violent. War is itself a form of political violence, and most would agree that war is not always wrong. Perhaps it could even be a sort of self-defense. If not personal, then societal. Our ideals aren’t a suicide pact, are they? We can make a somewhat obvious exception in the case of “they started it” or “they were threatening to.” For the most part we grant a pass to the former, though the latter gets trickier. It’s true that most of the circumstances in which violence can be justified will start from one of those two places, but the latter is always tricky and the former tricky once we get past self-defense.
I cite Emmett Rensin above in defending the violence, but just last week he wrote a good argument for why punching fascists is morally problematic from a left-wing perspective:
But Marxism and its intellectual heirs reject this notion: People are not autonomous. They do not behave rationally, or freely. There are no wholly culpable autonomous actors, only the expressions of culpable systems. The violence of capitalism, for example, is not the violence of particularly corrupt individuals but the inevitable product of a material structure. Some individuals may resist or relish their role, may err on the side of restraint or of excess, but their choices are not truly their own. One can imagine a Bastille Governor who did not order his troops to slaughter peasants, but this only reflects the routine imperfection of all systems. Such a choice would be an aberration: the historical force of the Ancien Regime was designed to open fire.
It has always seemed to me that collective theories of politics would therefore resist political violence. It is easy enough to justify the occasional murder of an actor if you believe his crimes begin and end with his own choices. But if entire classes are the engine of any political crime, then a politics that justifies the killing of those responsible does not end with an execution. It ends with a holocaust. I have always hoped that this inevitability would make collectivists wary of political violence, the ends of its logic too horrifying and too clear. But history contradicts my hope. When the left has seized power, it has always found kulaks to liquidate, great leaps to take forward. It has taken precisely the nightmare that arises from Robespierre’s excuse and applied it on a grand scale. Of course no individual is wholly responsible for its crimes, it says. That’s why we have to liquidate all the kulaks.
From a personal standpoint, and quite selfishly, I cringe at the violence in part because I don’t know the extent to which the actors recognize the difference between a real fascist and someone who supports policies that some people would argue are “fascist.” The Trumpers have argued that these protests aren’t about Trump but are about disagreement, and implicit in that is “If they weren’t aiming at us, they’d be aiming at you.” If political violence becomes normalized when disagreement becomes facism, communism, or whatever, then really nobody is safe. A willingness to allow people to air their views is one part idealism, and one part non-aggression pact.
So we’re left balancing both the acknowledgement that sometimes violence is necessary, but also that it’s really hard to justify. So the question becomes, “When is political violence justified?” I would argue that there are three main criteria: Whether the threat is sufficiently certain and dire, whether violence helps lower the odds or mitigate the damage, and whether there are alternative means to that same end. Before I go through them one by one, it’s important that we establish the moral case against punching people with bad politics. It might be easy for someone to convince themselves, for instance, that if they support violent policies then we too should be able to be violent!
How big of a threat is this, really?
One of the perennial philosophical debates is whether or not one would kill (or kidnap) Baby Hitler to prevent the Holocaust and World War II. Different people come to different conclusions, but all of them rely on foreknowledge of just how dangerous Hitler became. We have no such knowledge of any current figures. We’re all guessing. They’re not guesses in the dark, to be sure, but they nonetheless require a lot of caution. This is especially true when it comes to Trump, whose political philosophy is inconsistent and ill-determined. I look at him and I see someone who sees nothing beyond himself, and his conception of self is with indifference to – or more accurately hostility towards the rules and constraints that keep our demons at bay.
Others, however, don’t see that at all. They see someone who talks spit and likes to stir things up. Or they see him as a weapon against something more nefarious. Or they view the rules and constraints as not keeping our demons at bay, but leaving us vulnerable to bigger and badder demons that would do us harm. I believe all of this is wrong, but I do not know it to be the case. He has, after all, been a functioning member of the business community for decades and has sufficiently conformed to their norms to still be a figure. As such, I have to at least leave room for people who see him differently and also believe that they do not deserve to have their faces punched in.
There is, ultimately, a difference between the fear that Trump is a demagogue who will destroy everything and the knowledge that he is. Likewise, there is a fear of something as a remote possibility and a fear of something as a likelihood. Trump represents something of a low-probability, catastrophic-consequence scenario. The worst scenario makes a lot of very vocal opposition and heated rhetoric justifiable. However, it also falls short of violence to his supporters in good part due to probabilities. There needs to be more certainty.
Is political violence here productive or counterproductive?
Political violence can be effective in a real-life revolution. It can be effective if you have sufficient strength to instill fear one way or another. This will often require you having the implicit or explicit support of the authorities though, or that you are one of the authorities. You need to be able to credibly present a threat going forward, and one that can’t or won’t be responded to with sufficient force to prevent it. It can also be effective if you can provoke the other side into becoming even more violent, though that might be bad for your health.
To the consternation of Hayes and Adams, a lot of people have skipped straight past the morality of the question straight to this one. But it’s an important question and one that, if successfully argued, makes the moral question moot. Because even if we agree that violence can be justified, and even if we believe that Trump’s supporters warrant it, if it’s not productive then sure we can condemn it, right? And while the zeroth question, the morality of violence, requires a moral consensus, and the first question is a matter of speculation, certainly people can see how this is going to go over, right?
In my view, they should be able to see it. The horror people feel may be pearl-clutching to some, but it’s pretty real. Overwhelmingly, people don’t want to see it. It’s bad optics. It feeds into Trump’s and Trumpers’ perceptions of Who The Enemy Is. It takes the worst things Trump has said about violence at his rallies and puts them in a grayer context.
But more than that, though, this is breaking a lot of eggs without so much as an omelette recipe. If violence can be justified along tactical lines, what is the plan really? Do Trumpers stop showing up to rallies, or do they start showing up armed? The best tactical argument I can think of is that eventually a Trumper will literally shoot somebody and it will make Trump look bad. I would be surprised if that’s what they want though. I believe they have convinced themselves that these conflicts hurt Trump, and I believe that’s wrong. If you’re going to try to bait them, try to bait them into hitting you. Don’t hit them to try to bait them into shooting you.
Though I suppose if you’re willing to do that, you pass the threshold of the first question.
Is this necessary? Is there a better way?
During the primary, I advocated quite forcefully for denying Trump the nomination if he got a plurality, and even blowing everything up if he got a majority. My support for the latter ebbed once it started to look like he was doomed in the general because there was no need to wreck the process if the process would itself remove the threat. Playing convention games, though, isn’t advocating violence. The thresholds for the latter are significantly greater.
In our system, there are all sorts of intermediate measures to do our part to combat Trump, if you are inclined to want to. The lowest-threshold item is to simply vote against him, or you can vote for Hillary Clinton. You can also donate your time or money to seeing him defeated. You can register your opposition by holding out a protest sign outside of one of his rallies. You can write a blog. If it’s really dire, you can stop traffic or even damage property. There’s a spectrum with varying degrees of severity.
One seduction of violence is that it is a high-impact maneuver. Our vote is one upon a hundred millions or so and we have neither the time nor energy to have a substantial impact on a national level. Punch a guy, though, and your statement is heard across the world. People will know not only that Trump is opposed, but that you oppose him. I get the allure. But with the alternatives available, it raises questions about whether it’s about Trump or about you. That’s something to mull over, anyway.
Democracy, as they say, is the worst system except all others. One of the things that makes it less bad, though, is that it allows us a means to resolve issues without resorting to violence. There are scenarios where violence is the only way, but rarely is that true in a democracy. If it is true in a democracy, it involves drawing attention to a threat that people are unaware of. Whatever else we might say about Trump, people are aware of him.
This ties into the second factor: effectiveness If Trump is going to win the presidency, then you are likely emboldening the majority. If his is a minority, then democracy is there to handle that. And if it’s counterproductive, then literally doing nothing is more effective.
Image by nathanmac87