How Did Contemporary American Politics Become So Violent?
It's all around us.
BY Jamil Smith | Jun 7, 2017 | Culture
One of the most famous black athletes on Earth just had "nigger" painted onto his house, so let's talk about that for a minute. The hate crime was discovered at the $21 million Los Angeles home of LeBron James, a day before his Cleveland Cavaliers began their title defence in the NBA Finals. At a media event in Oakland, James spoke about it with the weight that the moment demanded, and with a thankfulness that may have seemed odd to some. The gratitude was not for the safety of his wife and sons, who weren't home at the time, but for the fact that this vandalism occurred at all. "I look at this as if this sheds a light and continues to keep the conversation going, then I'm okay with it," James told the assembled press.
That's a gracious statement, but we shouldn't need Jim Crow to pay James a visit to gauge the cultural climate in the United States right now. Lately, political violence of all varieties appears in increasingly vivid imagery and rhetoric. This isn't just because activists have pushed us to be so much more politically aware than we used to be. The shackles of civility and common decency have been cast off, leaving behind sore spots in need of a salve. Some people harass their neighbours inside a local grocery store to get that relief. Others leave nooses in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American Museum of History and Culture. Some, like the white supremacists who recently murdered people at the University of Maryland and on public transit in Portland, Oregon, are willing to go further. However this hatred manifests, it is utterly unmistakable. Even duller representations of bigotry all around us—statues of a Confederate general, for instance—now scream out all the indignities that their presence was intended to communicate.
James is correct that we should be thankful, in a way, to once again recognise contemporary America as the politically violent place it always has been. Many attribute this violence to the rise and rhetoric of Donald Trump, a fair assessment. While the GOP has long lacked a cogent philosophy or plan for actual governance, we're seeing a renewed brutal antipathy reminiscent of past times. This is not coming from both sides, no matter what you think of Kathy Griffin's reprehensible "art project." Elected conservatives, candidates, and their supporters alike are following their president back down into a disturbing place from which our politics, we'd thought, had emerged. This fresh political savagery we're seeing in our culture doesn't just stem from hurt feelings, but from the lack of an honest argument. How does a bully behave, after all, when he can't compete intellectually and has nothing to counter your wit? He punches, he kicks, he bites, he shoots, he stabs. Sometimes, he just bodyslams.
Greg Gianforte, the Republican elected last month in the Montana special election, issued a mea culpa at his victory rally. That was a coward's way out, considering that Gianforte could have apologised earlier to Ben Jacobs, the political reporter for The Guardian he allegedly attacked. Moments after Jacobs asked about the new CBO score for the American Health Care Act, Gianforte allegedly grabbed him around the neck with both hands and slammed him to the ground. That bill is very unpopular, so I get why Gianforte, on the last day of his unexpectedly tight special-election campaign, would avoid a comment on it. But ... a bodyslam?
HOW DOES A BULLY BEHAVE, AFTER ALL, WHEN HE CAN'T COMPETE INTELLECTUALLY AND HAS NOTHING TO COUNTER YOUR WIT?
There were the typically tepid condemnations from guys like Paul Ryan, who called on Gianforte to apologise (before he actually did). Ryan also indicated he will be welcome in Washington. Others shrugged, giving the "sometimes we all make mistakes" excuse. Some conservatives, a few of them in the media themselves, applauded it. Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh feigned concern for a moment before being Rush Limbaugh. "This manly, obviously studly Republican candidate in Montana took the occasion to beat up a pajama-clad journalist, a Pajama Boy journalist out there," he said.
Limbaugh's longevity in the media world is evidence that Trump's toxic masculinity didn't emerge out of thin air. Bullies have always been here, and they will never go away. However, when a party lacks governing philosophy or effective policy beyond intimidation and threats, it isn't a party anymore. It's a mob.
Matt Rinaldi, a Republican state lawmaker in Texas, recently called immigration enforcement on assembled protesters in the state capitol who were outraged over Senate Bill 4, a new law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott banning "sanctuary cities" that protect undocumented immigrants. Threatening people with incarceration and deportation for exercising free speech is some real snowflake stuff, as some conservatives might say. So is threatening to shoot one of your legislative colleagues in the head, as Rinaldi allegedly did later.
Imagine me calling the cops, or threatening to end you, all just because you and I disagreed over politics. How un-American does that sound? And yet prominent Republicans took a real stand after Rinaldi went off, because that macho shit gets them votes. It's well beyond what should be considered normal behaviour in our politics and our daily lives, but that's all their party can subsist on these days. Faced with policies that have failed working people for generations, they substitute this perversion of masculinity for actual accomplishments.
The president himself routinely and openly denigrates the press, which we can't divorce from Gianforte's act. Per fired FBI director James Comey's memos, Trump even encouraged the jailing of reporters who print leaked stories. Casually and without regard for the chaos he causes, the President of the United States has endangered people's lives. Without Trump, I sincerely doubt journalists would be dealing with the kind of vandalism that happened last Sunday at the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader newspaper offices. No one was hurt, but it seems someone shot out several of the windows there, given the small-caliber bullet damage that was found. The newspaper's publisher told The Hill that "the safety and security of our employees is paramount," and Herald-Leader political columnist Teri Carter tweeted that she is "threatened weekly, sometimes daily."
This is MY newspaper, where I write about politics. I am threatened weekly, sometimes daily. I am not the enemy.https://t.co/TvpQRf4kwU— Teri Carter (@teri_atthepaper) May 29, 2017
We need more from Republicans than sound bites when stuff like this happens. Let's also skip the empty condemnations of the violent perpetrators, because those people couldn't give a damn what a guy like Ryan has to say. The GOP has to start cleaning up its mess by acting proactively in support of the free press and recognising the humanity of various groups that their policy marginalises. They can't magically make their tax cuts for the wealthy suddenly popular amongst the American electorate, but Republicans can make it clear that the culture of violence they have engendered must end—then take concrete steps to end it.
In the midst of his Wednesday commentary about his "nigger"-ised house, LeBron James mentioned the casket of Emmett Till, the black Chicago teenager lynched in 1955 by several white men in a Mississippi town. Till's mother, Mamie, kept his casket open and had Jet magazine take photos so the world could see her son's mangled face. She knew that people have to see the full possibility of mankind's horrors for themselves before they believe it is possible. It's 2017. How much more do we need to see?