Alarmists on the Right are having a field day with this HuffPo editorial by Jesse Benn defending violence against Trump supporters. I’m leery of giving his argument more attention than it deserves. But in the end, I think this impulse should be resisted wherever it appears.
Benn’s prompt is the recent furor at San Jose, where protesters apparently threw eggs and punches at Trump fans. Their actions earned widespread condemnation from mainstream media scolds. Benn, in turn, condemns the condemners, insisting that this kind of violence is justified.
His argument has three–well, actually four points.
First, that anything less than violence would normalize Trump’s toxic campaign. Per Benn: “Treating this like politics as usual allows it to become politics as usual, and those who do so risk complicity ushering in a new era of fascist politics in the United States.”
I don’t know what news he’s reading, but every single commentator I’ve read has been at pains to argue that Trump represents something other than politics as usual. Benn’s real argument is that merely saying so is pointless. Words are for wimps. If you’re serious about making a change, hit someone. But that’s the fascist instinct in embryo. Isn’t this part of what we’re trying to oppose?
At best, it begs the question. When is violence justified? Where’s the line? Benn makes no bones about it: “Violence that takes place at Trump rallies—in support or opposition—is a reaction to the tone he’s set.”
Tone? This gives Trump way too much credit, protesters too little. So Trump says, “Let’s rumble!” and people have no choice but to respond to the taunt? What is this, a cafeteria fight?
We have a choice in how we respond to Trump’s bluster. Saying, “He started it!” won’t get us off the hook, especially when people aren’t attacking Trump himself, but lashing out at his supporters. Which takes us to Benn’s second point.
Trump doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He’s the natural consequence of, among other things, Republicans longstanding embrace of racism, perpetual attacks on the credibility of media, scientists, and the federal government, defunding public education, railing against so-called PC culture, and using immigrants as scape goats. Defeating these systems of power and their underlying apparatuses—think tanks, conservative radio, Fox News, the Tea Party, etc.—is a much longer-term and more demanding task than assuring Trump isn’t elected.
Apart from HuffPo’s terrible editing, this is a good point, a great point, perhaps the most important point that can be made about Trump’s rise. But I don’t see how it helps Benn’s thesis. Millions of people support Trump. What are we supposed to do, start fistfights with them all? There aren’t enough rotten eggs in America to pelt them into submission.
Pundits have typed their fingers to the bone trying to figure out what the heck these folks are thinking. Are Trump supporters racist? Hopelessly stupid? Hypnotized? So blind with proletarian rage that they can’t think straight? Even if we accept, as Benn seems to, that they’re mostly White supremacists, that doesn’t tell us how to deal with them. The problem is not that such people exist, but that there are so darn many of them.
Half the electorate is prepared to accept Trump as a leader. Advocating violence against them means advocating civil war. It may come to that, but do we want to hasten the crisis?
We still haven’t gotten to the main question: when is violence advisable? In the third phase of his argument, Benn gives some examples. Four are riots. The fifth, naturally, is World War II.
It’s true that the Soviets eventually crushed Hitler’s regime–after the Nazis had invaded Russia. Unless a dictator hellbent on world domination marches across the U.S. border, that’s not the most persuasive example.
Let’s focus on Benn’s more substantial claim. He cites three major riots from U.S. history: Stonewall, Watts, and the LA riots of the 90s, noting that each had positive effects–LGBTQ solidarity, police reform, increased attention to racial injustice. He throws in the Ferguson and Baltimore protests for good measure. Benn uses the word “uprising” to refer to these events, probably to counter the common canard that riots are caused by bad people running wild.
I’m sticking with the word riot, though, because I think it emphasizes an important distinction. An essential feature of such events is that they’re unpremeditated and uncontrolled. That makes riots different from organized protests. It also makes them different from armed rebellions.
Riots have no leaders, no structure, no mission statements. They’re unpredictable. They emanate from widespread frustration, often in response to injustice. But there’s no telling what will spark a riot. And once a riot gets going, there’s no knowing who’ll get hurt or what will be destroyed.
That’s why it’s foolish to blame riots on their participants. They’re best viewed as a symptom of social pathology. If they lead to needed reforms, it’s because they call attention to systemic problems, chiefly abusive policing.
There’s a nasty reactionary tendency to treat riots as orgies of willful destruction. “Look at these awful people, trashing their own neighborhoods–animals!” But the liberal temptation to see them as disciplined crusades isn’t much more enlightened. Each view makes the mistake of attributing intent to chaos, ascribing goals to a process that’s out of control.
When riots happen, we should focus not on blaming or celebrating the participants, but on remedying the underlying causes: structural inequality, police brutality, widespread discrimination.
This kind of civic soul-searching is a far cry from advocating violent attacks on civilians. 43 people died in the Detroit riots, 34 in the Watts riots, 55 in the LA riots. To the extent that riots have positive effects, it’s because sane people want to prevent them.
Deliberately provoking disorganized mayhem is not only reckless but incoherent. Conflagrations, pandemics, and market bubbles can reveal serious flaws in our public services. In the long run, they can lead to good effects. That doesn’t mean we should urge people to sow panic, spread the flu, and set fire to their neighbors’ houses.
There’s an inherent cynicism in this idea that because terrible events sometimes have good outcomes, terrible events aren’t really terrible at all. Benn isn’t arguing that the ends justify the means. He’s saying that the ends sanctify the means. Sure, we might have to hurt or kill people to get what we want, but if this gives grief to Donald Trump, that will mean the killings aren’t only justified, but genuinely heroic.
What could lead someone to think this way?
Benn says his argument rests on the three points covered above. But he goes on to make a fourth point–perhaps his most telling point. Benn argues that condemning violence is really an expression of privilege:
[W]hen those who hold that privilege dismiss the potential validity or logic of violent resistance, it’s effectively an effort to dictate the rules under which oppressed peoples respond to existential threats, and to silence forms of resistance disagreeable to privileged sensibilities. Don’t be that liberal.
This cuts both ways, of course. Why should privileged people have any more right to condone violence than to denounce it? (“Hey, oppressed peoples, know what would be awesome right now? A street war!!!”–Signed, your friend, White College Grad.)
It also strikes me as profoundly patronizing, as if “oppressed peoples” are somehow immune to persuasion. Read Jamelle Bouie’s eloquent response to the San Jose agitators. He’s not dictating rules; he’s appealing to reason.
But I think it’s Benn’s last sentence that gives away the game, framing the whole issue–bloodshed, fascism, existential threats to civilization–as a matter of self-conscious posturing. “Don’t be that liberal,” he writes. You know, the kind who believes in peace. Don’t you know that all the cool kids now are into violence?