Trumpism, Sandersism, and the aftermath of a politically motivated shooting attack
In an accidental encounter with a former senior American official a few days ago, the conversation moved quickly from talking about Israel’s troubles to talking about America’s. This was not a surprise. In recent months, I find Americans to be much less receptive to the idea of conversation about anything other than themselves – their troubles, the state of their country, the hurdles of their political system, their crisis of leadership.
Admittedly, there is comfort in this: for the first time in a very long time, American colleagues no longer feel entitled to lecture Israelis on the faulty ways of their – our – political system. There is also something troubling about it: Americans should be the ones to worry about the rest of the world while we, the smaller countries, the non-super-powers, worry about our own problems.
So we spoke about the US, its political culture, and the current atmosphere, which the experienced American described as “something I do not remember to have seen ever before.” He shared with me some of the things that his acquaintances say about the President of the United States. And he seemed worried. He thought that the atmosphere is one of “violence.” Yesterday, as a gunman was aiming his rifle at a group of Republican congressmen, he was proved prophetic.
Violence is nothing new to political life. Where there’s politics, there’s violence. Where there’s harsh political debate, there’s violence. Where there’s deepening political polarization, there’s violence. The democratic system is supposed to make violence less common – by convincing the public that politics is not a zero-sum game, and that all wins and losses are temporary – and maybe it does. But it does not make political violence disappear.
The consequences of political violence are sometimes surprising, and are sometimes counter-intuitive. But most often, there are no long-term consequences. Especially so when the violence is directed at person whose power to shape America’s policy is not substantial. There is shock, and an initial pacifying of public discourse, and promises to change course from now on, and calls for introspection. But soon people – leaders, voters, activists – go back to their old habit of battling. Wounding the House Majority Whip is not going to make the policies of the Republican Party any different from what they were before. Wounding the House Majority Whip is not going to make left-tilting voters any less angry than they have been since losing the election to the most unlikely opponent.
Note that nobody seemed utterly surprised yesterday when Washington learned about the attack. Shocked – of course. Devastated – no doubt. But not surprised. It’s been clear for some time now that the magnitude of anger, frustration, and sense of powerlessness on the left is high. It’s been clear for some time now that the kooky fringes set the tone in a political discourse that’s gone wild. Trumpism is a manifestation of anger. Sandersism is a manifestation of anger. This anger will not go away because of what happened yesterday. In fact, what happened yesterday can easily ignite a chain of violent reaction and counter-reaction by the angry and the angrier.
So the mission of politicians for the next few days is set: their responsibility is to tame the instinctive tendency of their supporters to circle their imaginary wagons and return fire.
Making the practical case against political violence is not as easy. Sometimes, political violence backfires – politically speaking. Sometimes, political violence changes political realities in the direction desired by the violent party. Many people in Israel still believe that the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing radical was politically beneficial for the right. Many would argue that killing Lincoln served the ideology of the group that plotted against him.
Don’t rush to come to conclusions on how the attack is going to impact the public. Don’t rush to conclude that this will delegitimize the forces of anti-Trump rage. Don’t rush to assume that this serves the Republican Party or hurts the Democratic Party.
Two political narratives are already emerging to explain what happened yesterday:
The first comes from the right. In short: the anger on the left, and the rhetoric against the president, and the irresponsible allegations and investigations against the administration, and the lack of respect for the democratic process by sore losers – all these should be considered as we try to understand the motivation behind the attack.
The second comes from the left. In short: this is the price we all pay for Trump. True, the violence came from the left, but the atmosphere that made violence more likely, the nose-diving public discourse, the perpetual provocation – these are all marks of the Trump era. Those who sow the wind reap the whirlwind.
Which of these two narratives is more credible? Which of these narratives is the public going to adopt? Sadly, it is quite possible that the right will turn to the first narrative and the left will turn to the second narrative. In such case – a likely scenario – the aftershock of the attack will have very little impact on America’s worrying political atmosphere.