“Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.” – Theodore Roosevelt
In January of 2016, I decided to go back to school for my Master’s degree. So for the last year this blog has run silent while I’ve studied the effects of extremism within the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a land that’s no stranger to political divisiveness among family, friends and community. In my studies, I delved deeply into the conflict’s history while diligently keeping tabs on the political developments back home in the U.S.
However, in the last few months I have grown increasingly apprehensive of what is transpiring across the Atlantic. Each day, it seemed, new and alarming events would emerge that detail the steady march of American politics towards a system and environment more reflective of Israel and its Arab neighbors than that of the Land of the Free that I left last September.
Departing last fall I began to see the fragmentation lines appear in our society: polarizing language steeped in ethno-religious and class divides which harbored justifications for increased scrutiny of security threats emanating from beyond our borders. To me these warning signs were like a big cat lurking at the edges of a flickering fire. So long as the fire stayed strong, the cat would stay away. But I was confident our cherished and formidable institutions could withstand the turbulence and burn strong in the night. I firmly believed it would take much to destroy the integrity of those bodies and what they stood for, but America’s institutional strength had clearly degraded since their last collision with the tides of extremism.
Nearly a year has passed since the election, and what is growing clearer as weeks roll on is that the fracturing of the political trust in our nation has led to a cognitive opening to ideological extremes. The emergence of decidedly Marxist factions within movements like “anti-fa,” shows that Marxist narratives have gained relevance within the left-wing –likely by bastardizing the grievances that Senator Bernie Sanders’ speeches on class warfare exposed during the last election. The allegations of the collusion within the DNC favoring Secretary Hillary Clinton over Sanders no doubt aided the Marxist recruitment narrative that all politicians were a part of an oppressive bourgeoisie determined to serve themselves at the expense of average Joe.
President Trump’s campaign similarly unleashed the demons of the right. Capitalizing on a cult of personality centered on his self-styled ability to change a corrupt system, Trump mobilized those that had long felt marginalized. Centered on xenophobic, exclusionary, and conspiratorial themes often emanating from the alt-right media machine, Trump’s primary victory forced the Republican party to make a Faustian bargain to advance their policy agenda. Now, the typically disparate factions have begun to coalesce under a new banner “Unite the Right,” with new charismatic leaders like Richard Spencer taking center stage in the media. Even ghosts of the past like David Duke have begun to gain prominence again. Alarmingly, they’ve both said that with Trump, they sense a friendly administration that has their priorities at heart.
Whether or not Trump actually holds these beliefs is almost irrelevant at this point. The closeness of Trump’s narratives and his advisers to that of neo-Nazis and the 1920s Klan has led “anti-fa” to endorse the use of violence to protect society against their historied adversary — fascists. And the alt-right isn’t backing down.
In what some fear-mongering and click-baiting writers have dubbed a desire for a new Civil War, Trump’s tweets in response to the rise of these factions have only exacerbated the already strong anxiety and tension in America’s political environment.
But we don’t live in a land without law enforcement and these extremists aren’t a large population. So why does this give me pause? Simply put, both sides’ extreme factions have justified their endorsement of violence on a lack of alternative strategies within the legal framework (e.g., protests, legislative campaigns, etc.). In addition, they have latched onto decidedly anti-democratic political ideologies to advance their agendas.
As I read the events back home, I can’t help but draw comparisons to the political turmoil leading up to the Oslo Accords in Israel during the mid-90s that rent Israeli society into two very distinct and antagonistic camps politically. Massive rallies and marches were held, and clashes that sometimes had violence erupted all the while increasingly vitriolic rhetoric created a perception that the left was destroying the nation. As PM Rabin refused to alter course in his implementation of the Oslo Accords which would grant Palestinians augmented authority over the West Bank, the lack of options in stopping Oslo’s implementation spurred right-wing extremist Yigal Amir to assassinate PM Rabin at a pro-Oslo rally in Tel Aviv. We should learn from our ally’s history — political division is toxic.
As American discourse continues to devolve into clashes between anti-fa and alt-right factions at protests and rallies, the rhetorical justifications for more drastic action grow as well. Failure by the President to sternly and quickly denounce the presence of Nazi flags and the use of a car to ram left-wing counter-protesters in Charlottesville has undeniably increased the appeal of narratives from the far left that President Trump is a fascist sympathizer.
Left-wing campaigns launched against individual protesters aimed at “outing” them as fascists has only further entrenched a victim narrative within the alt-right.
Around the country, municipalities have moved quickly to remove Confederate statues to prevent them being used as possible sites of clashes. While many will see the tearing down of Confederate statues as an expression of justice long deserved, others will see it as an assault on their in-group identity. Unfortunately, President Trump’s apparent endorsement of the culture destruction argument only further entrenches both sides.
How long until armed militia factions decide to “protect” these sites from “Commies“? With more armed militias appearing at rallies and protests, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see a neo-Confederate group coming armed to protect their “culture.” And what happens when the anti-fa shows up also armed? Worse yet, what happens if one side mistakes the composition of the other side and attacks occur on unarmed civilians engaging in protests? Boston’s law enforcement has already stepped up restrictions on protest parameters — no weapons of any kind, and clearly defined spaces for each group. These are excellent decisions to limit the potential for violence.
Despite the deep anxiety in the American public over these concerning developments, the way forward is not without hope. To do my part, I will dedicate a portion of this blog to monitoring political extremism in the United States. Other ways to fight against extremism include: meeting with your state representative about the President’s budget and programs on countering violent extremism in our communities. Pushing to have far-right extremism deradicalization programs reintegrated into the budget. Pushing for the same to be added for far left. Explaining that ideologies which endorse violence as a tool are NOT the way Americans should utilize the First Amendment.
Much of what drives extremism is fear, ignorance and shame. Find out why people support views you think are extreme, and engage them in constructive debate on how to identify, address and fix ills within our society. Most importantly, acknowledge their feelings. Dismissing frustrations leads to repressive coping mechanisms and can lead to further endorsement of the radical narratives. In short, be a good neighbor. Engage constructively, and listen genuinely. Every discussion, especially with those that we disagree with, is essential to strengthening the bonds of our society and moving away from the endorsement of violence because words have failed us.