What happens when a dangerous mix of irrational paranoia, constant perception of being under threat, and exuberance for extreme measures to defeat the other side, come to dominate the political landscape?
No democracy can function when it is defined by such an extreme, zero-sum struggle along moralised ideological fault-lines. But America is not a functioning democracy. The Republican Party no longer operate under any pretence of governing, and exist now as an emanation of the far-Right extremes where the ends of White Christian rule justify all means. On the other end of the rope in this existential tug-of-war for America's future is a movement with no pretence of functioning as a legitimate Left-of-centre political force, instead operating through censorious intolerance, incentivised victimhood, and relentless pursuit of ideological conformity to its absurd postmodern worldviews.
Both sides of this zero-sum struggle seek the imposition of their socio-cultural worldviews on society as a whole, leaving no room for compromise or dialogue. Even if dialogue were to occur, the two sides are speaking entirely different languages, which brings to mind Jonathan Haidt’s analogy that we are now living in a post-Babel world, unable to communicate with our neighbours, deliberately dismantling stable meaning from language. These are two sides who do not understand each other, and have no intention of understanding each other. Nowhere in the shouting is anything that even remotely resembles politics or policy; instead this battle is fought along moralised, value-based issues, a toxic recipe for politics that means no quarter may be given.
One word in all the fray should be more worrying for its use and abuse: violence. The embrace of actual violence on the Right is stark, from Republican politicians appearing in political ads wearing tactical gear and bearing military grade firearms, to the mobilisation of the rhetoric of revolution, to the events of January 6th, to the farcically tragic death-cult around the murder of children in schools. On the Left, conversely, all stable meaning has been removed from the word violence; words are now ‘violence’ and cause ‘harm’, any opinion not in accordance with faith-based postmodern orthodoxy is ‘violence’, ideas are ‘violence’, facts themselves even ‘violence’.
Meaning is removed from language, and concept creep erodes stable interpretation; violence is now everywhere and nowhere, present in everything and nothing. In times of social turmoil, this becomes dangerous territory. For America, on the precipice of civil breakdown with the most militarised civilian population in any country on earth, and with the most religiously extremist population of any Western democracy, the threat of actual violence is very real, and it is important to try to identify the nature of that threat.
9/11 fundamentally altered the meaning of the word ‘terrorism’ in the U.S. The concept become synonymous with Islam, with distant foreign lands, and Brown people looking to attack America’s “way of life”. The seeds of much of America’s current malady were sown in the response to 9/11; the cementing of Christian fundamentalism as a legitimate policy in the GOP, the embrace of xenophobia that preceded a rise in ethno-nationalism, the rhetoric of “crusades” and zero-sum “you're with us or with them” thinking, and the militarisation of politics.
What this brushed under the carpet was the fact that America has always existed with the threat of terrorism; domestic terrorism, which prior to 9/11 was most visibly represented by Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing of federal government buildings. According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), domestic Right-wing plots and attacks have accounted for the vast majority of terrorist incidents on American soil since 1994.
It is important to define operational terms for these various forms of terrorism. The CSIS defines Right-wing terrorism as:
“the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities whose goals may include racial or ethnic supremacy; opposition to government authority; anger at women, including from the incel (“involuntary celibate”) movement; and outrage against certain policies, such as abortion.”
Left-wing terrorism is defined as:
“the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities that oppose capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism; pursue environmental or animal rights issues; espouse pro-communist or pro-socialist beliefs; or support a decentralized social and political system such as anarchism.”
Religious terrorism may be defined as:
“violence in support of a faith-based belief system, such as Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, among many others.”
Finally, ethnonationalist terrorism refers to:
“violence in support of ethnic or nationalist goals — often struggles of self-determination and separatism along ethnic or nationalist lines.”
Confining the respective threat of these sources of terrorist acts to within U.S. jurisdiction, in the period 1994-2020 a total of 893 terrorist plots and attacks occurred in America, associated with the following sources:
57% Right-wing terrorism
25% Left-wing terrorism
15% Religious terrorism
3% Ethnonationalist terrorism
The targets are instructive of the respective ideologies underpinning the movements responsible. Most Right-wing attacks are on abortion clinics and other religious or government institutions. The targets of Left-wing terrorism are primarily animal research centres, farming and construction sites.
At 2,977 deaths, 9/11 stands out as the single highest death toll from a terrorist attack in the U.S. As a result, despite accounting for 15% of domestic terror attacks, religious terrorism is responsible for the greatest number of total deaths at 3,086 (of which ~96.4% is attributable to 9/11). However, adjusting for deaths per annum rather than standalone events like 9/11, Right-wing terrorism accounts for more deaths in a given year than other sources, and a total of 355 deaths (22 deaths are attributable to Left-wing terrorism). After 9/11, McVeigh is responsible for the second-most deaths on U.S. soil from terrorism with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Of particular concern is that the most significant increase in incidents has been from Right-wing terrorism.
The CSIS has identified a number of key characteristics of Right-wing terrorism:
Decentralised operating; i.e., the threat comes from individuals, not groups;
Online organising; i.e., social media platforms, chat rooms, etc.;
Co-opting of concepts from international terrorism; e.g., the concept of martyrdom.
In a country where many incidents occur from an individual acting alone, radicalised and inspired by online forums, and convinced of some distorted justification for murder and mayhem, the descent of civil discourse into civil strife in America feels like a road to dangerous territory. Depolarising online rhetoric and regulating active disinformation outlets like Fox News are not measures that will be forthcoming any time soon. Neither are “good guys with guns”, a fantasy narrative of the Right dreamed up in response to the reality that psychopaths and idiots have unchecked access to weapons of war.
Online organising is something that requires some careful thought. The glee with which many liberals have embraced de-platforming reflects a disquieting comfort the Left has with its censorious tendencies. For BigTech social media platforms to become righteous now is nothing more than a morality play to obviate the responsibility these platforms have at the root of the spread of misinformation, disinformation, hate, and extremism. This type of censorship merely serves to reinforce the persecution mindset on the Right and conspiratorial ideas about the ‘Deep State’. Alternative platforms like 8kun become dark corners of the internet for extremism. Without doubt society needs to move to greater regulation of the online information space, but the Left should not be dictating the terms of censorship. A worse outcome, of course, is for these platforms to self-regulate.
BigTech, the insidious role of the mainstream media in propagating active disinformation and rewarding divisions in society, the corrupting influence of unchecked corporate finance in political campaigns, and the partisan religiosity of the Supreme Court, all converge to create the febrile, zero-sum national discourse which has come to dominate the political and social landscape in America. Flowing from these issues, and in the context of the history of Right-wing domestic terror in the U.S., the potential for trajectory of escalating Right-wing violence in the run-up to the next election has a feel of inevitability.
The purging by the GOP of the likes of Liz Cheney, of anyone involved in the January 6th hearings, the continued embrace of Trumpism as the North Star of the Republican Party, and the celebration of violence from a militarised civilian populace, bodes ominously. The fact that the ‘forever wars’ are at an end for America means it now, finally, confronts the reality of the enemy within; that the greatest threat to the ideals America professes to represent are the very segments of American society who lay claim to being ‘true patriots’.
The pithy tweet/internet comment comes to mind, "If America saw what America is doing in America, America would invade America to liberate it from tyranny of America."
A major concern I have is around the continued existence of this very sort of website. Once the regulation of mis/dis/malinformation starts moving in the direction of censorial banning/"content moderation"/"fact checking" etc, how long until the information ecosystem becomes like that in China? "Who watches the watcher" as the old saying goes. This conversation is unbelievably relevant in Europe here too where there will likely be mass famine and subsequent mass migration of 10s if not 100s of millions of people from developing countries in the coming year or two which will coincide with many of those weapons poured into Ukraine making their way to black markets in Berlin/Paris/etc.
How much longer does a free speech platform like Substack survive in such a scenario?
The Google whistleblower Tristan Harris (Center for Humane Technology and the Social Dillema documentary) and his friend Daniel Schmachtenberger (Consilience Project) speak to this issue brilliantly.
In short: if we optimise for centralised control of information technology and potential force multiplying tools of catastrophe, we lock ourselves into authoritarian dystopia. Conversely, if we optimise for decentralised democratisation of information technology and potential force multipliers of catastrophe, we drive ourselves off the cliff of civilizational collapse. We need a "3rd attractor", as Schmachenberger put it recently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XCXvzQdcug&t=1873s