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Is the Right Going to Talk Itself Back into Political Violence?
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Is the Right Going to Talk Itself Back into Political Violence?

When you convince millions of people that their country is all but lost, don't be surprised when some act accordingly.

If you’ve read me at all, you know that I’m alarmed about alarmism. The differences between our two political parties are far less consequential than the animosity between members of those parties. The challenges to American liberty, to the American family, and to the American economy are less significant than fears about liberty, the family, and the economy. 

For about five minutes after January 6 I thought the shock of seeing the Capitol overrun might shock a critical mass of the right back to its senses. That hope died a quick death. Across the length and breadth of social media I saw Republican friends blame antifa. I saw right-wing pundits minimize the violence. I saw new grievances erupt online—this time aimed at progressives and Never Trumpers who allegedly “exaggerate” the gravity of the attempted insurrection.

And, of course, there has been absolutely no slowdown in catastrophic rhetoric. 

Case in point: Here’s the most-watched cable news host in America describing vaccination requirements in select jurisdictions and select businesses as “medical Jim Crow.” 

In a healthy political and cultural environment, the invocation of Jim Crow in connection with vaccine requirements should be discrediting. It trivializes the actual evil of Jim Crow. It stigmatizes entirely reasonable and prudent public health measures. It’s just absurd.

And while there are certainly millions of Americans who reject Carlson’s words, there are millions of others who watch Carlson and think the Democrats are bringing back Jim Crow. It redoubles their fears that the Democrats are destroying America. They look at people like me and say, “You told us that Joe Biden wouldn’t destroy America, but look, segregation is back.”

I’ve lost count of the number of segments I’ve seen on Fox News or other right-wing outlets that declare America “in crisis.” They speak of the nation as teetering on the brink of ruin. One gets the sense that some on the angry right want to see a cataclysm. They’re not so much describing a crisis as hoping to trigger a confrontation

And of course an even darker quarter of the right is talking openly about a coup. Yes, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, is a fringe figure, but he’s not fringe enough. The man draws a crowd. He’s got a cult following.

Last December I wrote repeatedly that catastrophic rhetoric could have violent consequences. On December 4, I noted that a “segment of true believers have already moved from tweets and rallies to intimidation and threats. I’m deeply concerned that a fringe will take the next step into violence.” 

Nine days later—as the “stop the steal” rhetoric continued to escalate—I wrote, “while I hope and pray that protests remain peaceful and that seditious statements are confined to social media, we’d be fools to presume that peace will reign.”

If there is a single lesson we can take from January 6, it’s quite simply that when you tell tens of millions of Americans that one political party is trying to steal an election, then some subset of those Americans will act like a party is stealing an election. They’ll do something about it.

If there’s another lesson we can take from January 6, it’s that we cannot count on the facial absurdity of hyperbolic claims to defuse public tensions—especially when it comes to the most radicalized subset of citizens. Not only did Joe Biden win fairly, there was never a single credible argument that his victory was illegitimate. Not one. It was easy to debunk election fraud claims. That did not matter. 

The near-immediate arrest of hundreds of Capitol insurrectionists may have temporarily blunted the tip of the Trumpist spear, but we’d be foolish to believe that the process of radicalization isn’t ongoing. 

In addition, it’s important to understand the dynamic in the Republican grassroots. Local activists are still relentlessly Trumpist. They remain convinced that the election was stolen. They hype every grievance to fit the narrative of American crisis, Big Tech tyranny, and cancel culture. They’re turning, hard, against virtually every significant American institution—even the military. Again, here’s Tucker:

What’s particularly alarming about this relentless alarmism is that the nationalization of everything means that there is constant fuel for the grievance fire. It’s a big country, and there’s always an outrage somewhere. You don’t think America is sliding down the drain? Have you seen this Cigna diversity PowerPoint? Do you know what Manhattan private schools have become? Have you read emails from anonymous officers saying the military has gone woke? 

To decry the nationalization of outrage isn’t to defend any given incident or institution. There are some absurd corporate diversity plans in America. All too many elite educational institutions are deeply intolerant. Yes, there are elements of the military that pay too much attention to political and cultural trends. But to acknowledge a problem isn’t to admit to a national crisis. 

Going back to the military, is there really meaningful evidence that it “at times does not seem interested in protecting the country?”

A peaceful consequence of the GOP’s crisis mindset is its hard turn against the First Amendment principles it has long espoused. It’s as if New Right activists believe the times are just too desperate for the Constitution. The First Amendment is a cultural suicide pact when drag queens roam the land

The GOP’s turn against free speech is distressing but manageable, at least for the moment. There is no indication (yet) that the federal judiciary (including Trump appointees) shares the New Right’s disdain for the Bill of Rights. Indeed, the conservative legal movement was indispensable to stopping Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. When Republican nominees chose the Constitution over Trump, they quite literally saved the republic from potential collapse. 

Renewed violence, however, would be more distressing and much less manageable. And as I look at the escalating rhetoric at the grassroots, to quote many Star Wars characters, “I have a bad feeling about this.” If you tell Americans they face Jim Crow, some will believe they face Jim Crow. If you tell Americans that the nation is facing imminent collapse, some will believe it faces imminent collapse. And some subset of those angry, frightened people will take actions that match their fears. 

One more thing …

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this newsletter, Religion News published the contents of a letter that my friend Russell Moore wrote to the Board of Trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I’d urge you to read the entire thing, but these excerpts give you a sense of the sheer cruelty he experienced when he tried to address sexual abuse and racism within the church—a cruelty not unlike that Beth Moore endured before she departed the SBC.

On matters of race, his words are searing:

At the same time, the other absolutely draining and unrelenting issue has been that of racial reconciliation. My family and I have faced constant threats from white nationalists and white supremacists, including within our convention. Some of them have been involved in neo-Confederate activities going back for years. Some are involved with groups funded by white nationalist nativist organizations. Some of them have just expressed raw racist sentiment, behind closed doors. They want to deflect the issue to arcane discussions that people do not understand, such as “critical race theory.” There is no Southern Baptist that I know, of any ethnicity, who is motivated by any critical theory but by the text of Ephesians and Galatians and Romans, the Gospels themselves, the framework of Revelation chapters four and five.

More:

From the very beginning of my service, I have been attacked with the most vicious guerilla tactics on such matters, and have been told to be quiet about this by others. One SBC leader who was at the forefront of these behind-closed-doors assaults had already ripped me to shreds verbally for saying, in 2011, that the Southern Baptist Convention should elect an African-American president. This same leader told a gathering that “The Conservative Resurgence is like the Civil War, except this time unlike the last one, the right side won.” I walked out of that gathering, as did one of you.

Some folks wonder why I’m less worried about Critical Race Theory than I am about actual racism. Dr. Moore’s letter will tell you some reasons why. 

One last thing …

This has (again) been a heavy newsletter. So let’s close with something awesome, and something awesome is Dame Time. 55 points. On the road. Wow.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.