We are just now beginning to digest the news that at least twelve deadly pipe bombs were mailed to prominent members of the Democratic Party (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Eric Holder, Cory Booker, and Maxine Waters among them), at least one major media outlet (CNN), and other outspoken critics and foes of Donald Trump, ranging from George Soros to Robert DeNiro to former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
There has been lots of grave condemnation of these acts, justifiable anger at Trump’s culpability for inciting such violence, and—naturally—despicable demagoguery about the matter from Trump himself and his defenders.
What I have not heard, however, is an acknowledgement of what is, to me, the most striking aspect of the incident:
That it was terrorism perpetrated not against the ruling government, but on its behalf.
GOLIATH, THE REAL VICTIM
This makes no military sense.
Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare, which is to say, combat between two forces that are not evenly matched in conventional metrics like numbers or firepower. Accordingly, its goal is not military victory as it is usually defined—not to destroy or overpower the enemy—but to inflict such pain (often by aiming at the most vulnerable civilian targets) that the ostensibly more powerful foe will concede for political reasons. It is a strategy typically adopted by small insurgent groups that do not have the personnel, materiel, or firepower of the opponents they are fighting: that is, the uniformed armed forces of a sovereign state.
In short, it’s how David takes on Goliath.
For obvious reasons, terrorism is usually employed by revolutionary non-state actors seeking to overthrow the ruling order. The ruling order doesn’t need to resort to these methods, as it has armies, navies, and air forces that can carry out conventional applications of force in order to maintain and project power and advance its goals.
This is not say that state actors and conventional armed forces can’t and don’t engage in “terrorism.” Carpet bombing, chemical attacks, mass murder of noncombatants and other such tactics all qualify in terms of sheer infliction of punishment on innocent civilians in order to force political submission. But the kind of acts that we generally associate with “terrorism” in its colloquial definition—assassinations, bombings, hijackings, and the like—are almost exclusively the province of small bands of guerrillas (or lone wolves) seeking low cost, high return ways to defeat better armed and numerically superior foes. That is why almost every infamous terrorist group or lone wolf you can think of, from far left to far right— the Weathermen, Red Army Faction, IRA, UDA, ANC, Sendero Luminoso, Red Brigades, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Lee Harvey Oswald—is outside the power structure and trying to change it or bring it down.
But the terrorist attacks we saw this week were not carried out to undermine or overthrow or otherwise inflict damage on the US government. They were carried out to protect and help that government by murdering and intimidating dissidents and other critics of the regime.
What does this mean?
It means that the ruling power in the United States—that is to say, the Trump regime—has successfully motivated and mobilized thuggish elements within the general public to carry out acts of political violence against Trump’s enemies.
This is Fascism 101.
INSERT FROG IN WATER HERE
From the moment of Trump’s election there have been fears that the United States could slip into actual, jackbooted autocracy….even before his election, in fact, when it came to him hinting he might not accept the results.
Initially these fears were snottily dismissed as liberal hysteria…and not just by the right, but by the majority of mainstream pundits, all of whom fancied themselves sober realists.
But with each passing day and each new Trumpian atrocity, the Overton window has moved. The radicalization of ICE, the kidnapping of children, the construction of concentration camps, the rampant banana republic-style corruption, the normalization of Stalinist rhetoric, the further empowerment of the right wing propaganda machine, the tolerance and even tacit encouragement of right wing hate groups, the abuse of the pardon, the relentless attacks on a free press and the rule of law itself—all routine now.
Did Trump’s election tself not convince you that anything is possible, even the unimaginable? In other words, that it can indeed “happen here?”
Now we are seeing yet another milestone in that grim process, an escalation of the polticial violence on behalf of and inspired by the government. Will this prove to be just an aberration, or are we witnessing the beginning of a terrifying new phase in this nightmare? I don’t know, but as has been widely noted on social media, let’s stop and think for a moment about precisely what we are watching:
Someone just tried to murder all of President Trump’s chief critics.
That is the sort of thing that happens in a cult-of-personality police state, which the United States increasingly resembles. The rise of state-condoned (and encouraged) vigilante violence is a bright red marker on the dark road to authoritarianism.
Terrorism mounted on behalf of the state, rather than against it, serves the purpose of repressing (or obliterating) dissent and further entrenching the status quo. As such, it’s a rather useful thing for a ruling power that condones it, in terms of a force multiplier and plausible deniability. That is especially true in a modern autocracy—of which Putin’s Russia is the prime example, and which Trump’s America is rapidly emulating—that operates under the pretense of a sham democracy.
If we are collectively the proverbial frog in boiling water, someone just turned the heat way up.
THE GHOST OF HENRY II
Trump initially managed to issue a cursory, pro forma denunciation of the attempted bombings, but was soon winking at his base, and not long after, back to his usual poisonous form, blaming the abortive attacks on the climate of “incivility” created by—wait for it—the media. (As Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times wrote yesterday, “We don’t know who is behind these bombs, but we do know that Trump can’t even fake concern for their intended targets.”)
That this was hardly surprising does not make it any less despicable. But that, too, is Fascism 101: accuse your enemies of your own crimes.
Now that a suspect has been taken into custody, I can hear Republicans scoffing that the act of one (presumably) mentally unstable individual can hardly be blamed on the President, or the GOP, or right wing ideology at large. By way of comparison, they are already pointing to mentally disturbed anti-Trump individuals like James Hodgkinson, who shot up a Congressional baseball practice last year, wounding four. Even if this had turned out to be the act not of a mentally ill solo actor but of a rational but homicidal group of right wing terrorists, the GOP would point to times that left-leaning radicals carried out unspeakable acts that Democratic leaders insisted had no connection to their party.
Fair enough. But the difference is that, in this case, it cannot be argued that the actions of the accused pipe bomber are disconnected from the administration. On the contrary, in fact. Yes, James Hodgkinson shot four people, but Bernie Sanders never encouraged him to do so.
It’s not necessary for me to repeat the ways in which Trump has created a toxic climate of blind hatred and vicious partisanship beyond even what the Republican Party has long cultivated. Read the newspaper any day. Most appalling, however, are the ways in which he has openly and actively incited violence by his supporters against anyone with the temerity to oppose him—political rivals, protestors, the press—using the time-honored language of the worst autocrats. It goes without saying that that is the behavior of a tinhorn despot, and heretofore unheard of by a man occupying the Oval Office. But now we just call it “Tuesday.” Michelle Goldberg again:
(N)o one has done more to stoke political violence than Trump. During the presidential campaign, he encouraged his febrile supporters to beat up protesters, even offering to pay their legal fees. He said that if Hillary Clinton was elected, “Second Amendment people” might be able to stop her from picking judges. Last year, he tweeted a doctored video that showed him tackling a man with a CNN logo for a head. In a speech to law enforcement, he urged the police to rough up criminal suspects: “Please don’t be too nice.” Last week, he praised the Republican congressman Greg Gianforte for assaulting a journalist, a crime towhich Gianforte pleaded guilty. “Any guy who can do a body slam—he’s my kind of guy,” said Trump.
At the risk of trafficking in a thought experiment that has ceased to have any power, imagine if Hillary Clinton—or worse, a black guy like Barack Hussein Obama—had gone around saying those sorts of things Donald Trump says on a daily basis, and some left wing bomber had done what this pro-Trump would-be killer has done. Oh yes, I am sure Fox Nation would have given them a pass.
And now, when one of his supporters takes Trump’s words to heart and tries to murder a slew of his most high profile foes—including a former President and Vice President; a former Secretary of State, US Senator, and First Lady; a former Attorney General; a pair of senior intelligence officials, and two sitting members of Congress—Trump shrugs and says, “Don’t look at me.”
Nice leadership, guy.
One of the few advantages of a strongman, typically, is that they’re at least strong. Ours, on the other hand, is anything but, and not even deserving of the name. A demagogue, bully, and provocateur, he is above all an utter coward.
DOES THIS SHIRT COME IN BROWN?
No one is suggesting that the Trump White House directed these attacks. (Although if it emerged that that were true, no one would really be surprised either, which tells you a lot.) Donald Trump did not mail these bombs nor overtly order their deployment. But when it comes to his enemies, he has certainly been crying, Henry II-like, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
And now, some would-be pipe bomber has taken him up on it.
Even if this bomber was acting wholly on his own initiative, can anyone plausibly say that he was not inspired and encouraged by Trump’s relentless, incendiary rhetoric? Only a human fountain of lies like Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) recalled the infamous 1963 firebombing of a Birmingham church that killed four black girls, noting how the words of Alabama officials Bull Connor and Governor George Wallace had empowered the bombers. And he should know: as a former federal attorney in the 2000s, Jones prosecuted two of the four KKK members responsible for that crime, some forty years after the fact. (Here we have a mixed situation. The Birmingham bombers were acting in support of a segregationist state government, but against the higher authority of the federal government.)
Pursuant to catching the suspect, the police and FBI reportedly focused on south Florida because the packages bore the return address of former Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which is either a wry joke by the bomber, or the worst attempt at misdirection ever. Judging by the right wing decals plastered all over Cesar Sayoc’s (inevitably white) van, camouflage and concealment was not his strong suit.
Which didn’t stop right wing nuts like Limbaugh from proclaiming this all to be a false flag operation, natch. Professional hatemonger and tinfoil hat connoisseur Lou Dobbs went Rush one better, arguing that there were no bombs at all, that this was a moon landing-style hoax. (I guess because the Secret Service and USPS are all in on this deep state conspiracy too?) What passed for sanity on the right amounted to the lame, by-now-hackneyed apportioning of blame to all sides, as we immediately saw the requisite suggestion of a false equivalence. Goldberg one last time, dismantling that lie:
At this point, someone devoted to the proposition that “both sides” are responsible for our incendiary political environment might point to the black-clad anarchist street fighters of antifa who regularly brawl with the far right. But even if you believe that the antifa movement is as violent as its right-wing opponents—it’s not—it has no real connection to the Democratic Party, which by most accounts it despises….
(T)here is no serious comparison between left-wing and right-wing violence in this country, either in the scale of the phenomenon or the degree to which it is encouraged by political leaders….
To reiterate: this is not a bunch of revolutionary crazies trying to overthrow the government. This is the government itself waging gangster-style oppression, intimidation, attempted assassination, and other political violence by proxy. To that point, the group that this bomber, right wing goons like the Proud Boys, and the resurgent neo-Nazis of Charlottesville most resemble is the Brownshirts: street thugs loosely organized into a paramilitary gang to carry out violence on behalf of the regime. It is another step toward the full-blown authoritarian state that Trump has been inching us toward for almost two years now, notwithstanding the Republican Party’s condescending sneering at the very notion.
And in this lethal climate, does the President of the United States sincerely denounce these unforgivable attacks? Does he reflect on what is at the root of such hatred and violence and seek solutions? Does he exercise the kind of leadership that his office demands and act as a calming influence on a roiled nation? Or does he further fan the flames of hatred, abdicate all responsibility, and seek to use this incident for his own partisan advantage?
NB: Those were rhetorical questions.
DID YOU SEE HIM REPRESSING ME?
My title for this essay refers facetiously to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I don’t mean to be flip by any means. (Though Python is actually as incisive as anyone you care to name when it comes to social and political commentary. See also Life of Brian.)
It goes without saying that not only were the intended targets of these bombs at risk of death or severe injury, but also police officers, postal workers, Secret Service agents, and ordinary citizens and bystanders. My wife and I have friends at Tribeca Film, where the mail is not routinely opened by federal agents, like that of former presidents, but by regular folks like you and me—interns in some cases. (Look for a sharp downturn in young college grads willing to start out in the mailroom.) The bomb meant for DeNiro reportedly sat in that mailroom for TWO DAYS before one of the company’s security personnel—a sharp-eyed retired NYPD officer—saw a report about the other bombs and remembered seeing a similar-looking package, prompting him to race down to the office after hours, possibly saving untold lives.
Just a few days ago, before these attempted bombings became known (but after the recent, brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a close Trump ally, a crime that was met with similar presidential lip service), Susan Glasser wrote prophetically in The New Yorker about Trump’s incendiary verbiage:
What the President of the United States is actually saying is extraordinary, regardless of whether the television cameras are carrying it live. It’s not just the whoppers or the particular outrage riffs that do get covered, either. It’s the hate, and the sense of actual menace that the President is trying to convey to his supporters. Democrats aren’t just wrong in the manner of traditional partisan differences; they are scary, bad, evil, radical, dangerous. Trump and Trump alone stands between his audiences and disaster. I listen because I think we are making a mistake by dismissing him, by pretending the words of the most powerful man in the world are meaningless. They do have consequences. They are many, and they are worrisome. In what he says to the world, the President is, as Ed Luce wrote in the Financial Times this week, ‘creating the space to do things which were recently unthinkable.
Well, we better start thinking about the unthinkable, because this week what Bertolt Brecht called “Mahagonny”—a cynical, stupid, fascist state—took a giant leap closer to becoming a reality in these United States.