Having it Both Ways
Both sides do it. That’s what they keep telling us.
That was the instinctive consensus among mainstream commentators and officeholders after a Trump-crazed bomber sent live explosive devices to a list of leading liberal political figures and journalists who have been singled out for demonization by the president. And with a horrific massacre killing eleven congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, the same pro forma plea for an elusive national unity took hold among our politicians and commentariat. It seems everyone —or at least everyone enjoying access to a respectable media platform and inclined to echo the sentiments of sober “centrists,” Republican apologists, and enablers of various stripes—thinks the American populace ought to just stop bickering and “come together,” and that will fix everything.
They’re led, of course, by Trump himself, who last Wednesday delivered scripted remarks during an appearance at the White House saying, “We have to unify. We have to come together and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message, that acts or threats and political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.”
At a rally that night, he added, “There is much we can do to bring our nation together. For example, those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective. Have to do it. The language of moral condemnation and destructive routine—these are arguments and disagreements that have to stop.” People cheered.
Earlier, that same crowd had chanted about Hillary Clinton: “Lock her up!” And in doing so, they knowingly enacted one of the symbolic rites of belonging in the Trump movement—one that’s endured for two solid years after Trump himself defeated Clinton and rendered her a nugatory force in national politics.
This split-screen state of dementia marked just another day in Trump’s America—a demonstration of just how un-self-aware, projection-prone, and startlingly obtuse both Trump and his army of authoritarian followers have become. Nowhere has this double standard been more plain than in the Trumpists’ running depiction of the supposed threat of chaotic violence on the left. Indeed, this was a pet refrain for the president himself the week before the attempted bombings, when he denounced Democrats as an “angry, ruthless, unhinged mob” that was unfit to govern. And that, mind you, was soon after a pack of Trump-loving Proud Boys had gone on a violent rampage in downtown Manhattan.
Taking the domestic terror threat seriously would mean addressing the systemic aspects of political violence.
Even after last week’s attempted bomb attacks and synagogue massacre, the centrists and their defenders keep circling. National Review editor Jonah Goldberg reaffirmed the conventional wisdom that both sides are responsible for the political violence. Rep. Steve Scalise, the victim of a shooting by an unhinged liberal who attacked an informal congressional baseball practice in 2017, was brought forth to remind everyone that “the left” can be violent too: “I wish both sides would be speaking out about it when it happens on either side.”
Actually, both sides do speak out about it, and deliver all kinds of official statements denouncing violence when it occurs. Bernie Sanders made a speech on the Senate floor denouncing Scalise’s shooter, who had once volunteered for Sanders’s presidential campaign. Trump has made a couple of official denunciations of the week’s right-wing violence.
The problem is that such “speaking out” does about as much good as thoughts and prayers when it comes to preventing the repetition of such violence in the future. Taking the domestic terror threat seriously would mean addressing the systemic aspects of political violence and squarely examining the ideologies that produce such violence—ideologies such as the rabid anti-Semitism and immigrant-baiting displayed by Robert Bowers, or the seemingly unquenchable hard-right rage of MAGA bomber Cesar Sayoc.
No one is doing that because almost everyone in media, it seems, is wedded to their both-sides-do-it narrative. To take just one among countless egregious examples, the editors of the New York Times responded to this month’s Manhattan thuggery by running a puff piece about Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Instead of treating McInnes’s ugly career as a deformation of America’s aspirational values, the Times instead approached him as yet another charismatic and colorful spokesman for the hard right in the process of moving from the fringe to the mainstream. This sick normalization of predatory street violence is only thinkable under the narrative dispensation of both-siderism—in this zero-sum universe, even mob mayhem becomes a form of savvy self-marketing, one that’s designed to swamp out allegedly similar tendencies on the radical left. The evidence now clearly shows that no multiple dose of reality is going to pry this spurious narrative template away from the mainstream press.
The problem is this: both sides don’t do it. Not when it comes to political violence in America.
It’s true that there has been an increase in far-left street violence since Trump’s election. However, the vast majority of such action has come in the context of deliberate attempts at violent provocation and confrontation by the radical right—the sort of tactical street-level violence that’s made the Proud Boys a household name.
Both sides are not organizing gangs of violent street brawlers, mostly outsiders, to march through the streets of cities where their opponents are politically dominant in the hope of provoking confrontations with inflammatory language. Only one side is doing that.
Both sides are not driving cars into crowds and murdering protesters. Only one side has done that.
Both sides are not busily fantasizing about a coming civil war between the right and left, nor arguing that such a conflict might be desirable. On the right, this has become an obsession, particularly among the Alex Jones/Infowars/“Qanon” contingent. But then, the idea of a civil war has been popular on the right since at least the 1990s, thanks to Rush Limbaugh. Again, only one side seems to hopefully anticipate such violence.
What about these violent ideas when they leave the world of rhetoric and conspiracy theories and manifest themselves in reality?
Almost everyone in media, it seems, is wedded to their both-sides-do-it narrative.
Certainly, the left side’s lethal violence is not entirely absent, as the case of the Scalise shooting (four others were injured as well) demonstrates. In the past decade, there have been two other noteworthy instances of left-wing domestic terrorism: Floyd Corkins’s armed invasion of the offices of the Family Research Council in 2012 (one person was injured), and the July 2016 shooting rampage by Micah Xavier Johnson in Dallas that left five police officers dead and seven wounded, along with two civilians.
But turning to the right side of the lethal-political-violence ledger tells a very different story.
When it comes to domestic terrorism in the United States over the past three decades, right-wing extremists have been responsible for hundreds more incidents, as well as hundreds more deaths, than have their counterparts on the left. Incidents such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by militia extremist Timothy McVeigh and the murderous rampage of the Atlanta Olympics, abortion clinic, and gay bar bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, which lasted from 1996 to 1999, are only two of the more prominent historic cases. Again, none of these terror attacks have any left-wing parallels or counterparts.
According to the Government Accountability Office, there were 106 people killed between 2001 and 2016 by far-right extremists in sixty-two incidents. In that same period, zero deaths were attributed to radical leftists.
A database on domestic terrorism for 2008 to 2017 that I helped assemble recorded a total of 115 incidents of right-wing terrorism that resulted in seventy-nine deaths. We similarly recorded nineteen incidents of left-wing terrorism, which resulted in seven deaths.
Both sides aren’t inspiring angry ideologues to enter places of worship and open fire. In the past decade, it’s happened in Knoxville, Tennessee; in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; in Charleston, South Carolina; and now, this week, in Pittsburgh. Radical leftists aren’t doing this. Only the radical right is killing people in large, frequently random attacks.
Nor is it happening simply in places of worship. There have been men shooting up Planned Parenthood clinics and murdering abortion providers, men who hate liberals walking into movie theaters and murdering people simply for watching an Amy Schumer film. And these are people who, like Knoxville killer Jim David Adkisson and Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, believe that the targets of their war must be mainstream liberals and “socialists.”
There’s no left-wing counterpart to this. There’s no parallel universe in which radical leftists are gathering up guns and making bombs and killing people in terrorist acts. Yet to watch cable and network TV—especially Fox, but all the mainstream networks are guilty—you’d think that the most lethal threat facing Americans right now are black-masked antifascists and the “violent left.”
Well, the Southern Poverty Law Center has recorded forty-three deaths attributed to the alt-right over the past four years. So far, in the same time (or at any time, for that matter) there have been zero antifascist killers. Zero.
This asymmetrical reality starkly contrasts with the perfect symmetry of violence that mainstream pundits and politicians rely on in spinning their “both sides” narrative. It tracks rather perfectly with the same kind of asymmetry pointed out by longtime Beltway observers Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who pointed out in 2012 that the Republican party inside Washington had become an “insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
As with the Ornstein and Mann, the mainstream media—which assiduously avoided discussing their conclusions—have likewise done everything within their power to avoid confronting the unpleasant reality about political violence that upsets their established narratives.
Both sides don’t do it. The American left can be pugnacious, unpleasant, and self-righteous. But it isn’t innately violent.
In stark contrast, the American right has an ongoing and profoundly disturbing track record of inspiring political violence. What’s more, in the two years since Trump’s election, it has gone off the rails and is threatening to drown our democratic institutions in a flood of authoritarianism driven by right-wing media tropes and paranoid propaganda in the social-mediasphere.
The American left can be pugnacious, unpleasant, and self-righteous. But it isn’t innately violent.
Most of all, its leader and most powerful figure not only winks and nods at these extremists (as he has done since before his campaign) but also actively fuels them—most toxically by indulging in the same conspiracist nonsense that undergirds their own right-wing alternative universe. It’s not simply a coincidence that Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers was obsessed with the hysteria over a border caravan approaching the United States; that same hysteria had been whipped up among far-right groups in the days before the massacre by Donald Trump’s demagoguery. Bowers blamed it all on Jews, picking up on the GOP establishment’s longstanding demonization of George Soros as a donor-cum-puppetmaster of the radical left. This is called scripted violence, and Trump is writing the scripts.
And much of the press, whose role is supposed to be democracy’s guardian, seemingly would rather drown along with all the other institutions of our public life than recognize, report on, and explain the stark reality. This deadly failing has a lot to do with the structure of the mainstream media and how its journalistic standards have been corrupted both by corporate ownership and by the ongoing presence of a propaganda outlet—Fox News—posing as a legitimate news entity.
In the end, the country can’t “come together” when one side of the divide derives its worldview from a media environment (and a commander-in-chief) dedicated to coaching hatred of the other side on an hourly basis. Until that changes, appeals to some higher sense of national unity are plainly what they are in Trump’s own mind—a disagreeable and perfunctory social obligation to fulfill between extended fantasies of hostile immigrant invasion, the rhetoric of pending civil war, and chants of “Lock Her Up!”.