There’s nothing unprecedented about the pipe bombs sent to the Clintons, the Obamas, CNN, Maxine Waters and celebrity critics of Donald Trump. The historical context for these bombs isn’t just an obscure intellectual issue. Not understanding the violence and racism embedded in American history is why so many liberals have gotten Trump and his followers so wrong.
For almost 250 years, Americans kidnapped and enslaved millions of Africans. On plantations, rape and violence were the norm. When slaves rebelled — often by murdering their owners — they were killed. In the 19th century, the war to end slavery killed more Americans than any war since. Over the course of that century, 27 political leaders were killed, sometimes in regional armed conflicts over slavery, most famously Abraham Lincoln.
During Reconstruction, numerous African Americans were murdered by terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan to drive the recently freed slaves out of political power. This led directly to Jim Crow, a regime enforced by state and grassroots violence that lasted almost 100 years. (In the meantime, America was waging a series of genocidal wars against Native Americans.)
Roughly the same number of politicians were killed in the 20th century; two of them — one president and one Senator, both Kennedys — were killed at the very height of post-war American stability, sometimes referred to by Baby Boomers as the Good Old Days. Martin Luther King was assassinated during that period; so was Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was killed in his sleep by police. Let’s not forget Kent State and Jackson State, where unarmed student protesters were killed by National Guard and police.
In 1995, right-wing terrorists bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and leaving 680 others with life-changing physical and mental injuries. Far from recoiling in horror, right-wing political movements began to fetishize guns and deploy openly violent rhetoric against opponents. According to the Government Accountability Office, right-wing extremist groups are responsible for three-fourths of the violent, politically motivated incidents that have happened since September 12, 2001.
The left is not immune to violent impulses. In addition to spikes in left-wing and anarchist terrorist violence in the early and mid-20th century, we’ve seen examples of street-fighting and assassination attempts instigated by the lone-wolf or loosely-organized anarchists and leftists. However, in the 21st century, there are only two deaths tied to those incidents (probably because it’s been rare for left-wing terrorists to use guns). Since 9/11, the New America Foundation finds that 73 Americans have been killed in far-right attacks, and eight have been killed in black nationalist/supremacist attacks. There are no deaths attributed to groups like Antifa.
None of these numbers include mass shootings that seemed motivated by hate for one group (women, gays and lesbians), but not by a well-articulated political ideology. If we were to look at it from that admittedly fuzzy perspective, casualties would skyrocket into the thousands. I’ve also excluded explicitly Islamist violence, focusing on homegrown right vs. left. For the record, I see violence by Muslim extremists as being fundamentally right-wing in nature (authoritarian, patriarchal, homophobic, dehumanizing of out-groups).
Why does this history matter? I recently watched a 2016 TED talk by liberal journalist Michael Tomasky. In the video, Tomasky argues that despite the rise of Donald Trump within the GOP (then just a candidate in the GOP primary), political polarization would soon decrease.
Nearly every prediction he makes in this video turned out to be wrong. Dead wrong.
Why? Because Tomasky forgets that white supremacy and violent extremism are both features, not bugs, of American history — an essential part of the consensus that he seems nostalgic for. Yes, there were once conservative Democrats, mostly in the South — but what’s only implied in his talk is that those conservative Democrats were often violent racists. When black voices started to rise in the Democratic Party, the conservative Democrats couldn’t stay in the same party as those voices. Not because African-Americans were so strident and radical, but because all those conservatives couldn’t stand to be in the same space with them.
So they went over to the GOP, who actively recruited them with Nixon’s Southern Strategy. This unleashed a chain of events that made Democrats more liberal (and racially diverse) and Republicans more conservative (and more dependent on whites for votes), a bifurcation institutionalized by gerrymandering that created white and majority-minority districts. People like Tomasky forget that this bipartisan consensus among white folks started to fall apart once not-white people marched their way into state houses and Washington, D.C. This is the point in the American timeline when Jim Crow falls, the time of my grandparents’ adulthoods and my parents’ childhoods. That past isn’t dead. It’s not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner. My parents’ generation is still very much alive — and they vote. Obama’s election shocked many of the people who couldn’t live with the end of Jim Crow. That shock turned the birther conspiracy theory into the platform for electing Donald Trump.
That’s why today’s polarization isn’t over something like fiscal policy; it’s about whose lives matter. (Although it might be said that the wealthiest people must love how racism is being used to slash their taxes.) Tomasky argues, near the end of this video, that if Trump wins the nomination, a group of Republicans would rise up to oppose him, thus bringing balance to the party. That hasn’t happened, because, I believe, Trump is the rule, not the exception, to American history. If Tomasky had understood that, he might have seen that polarization was going to get worse, not better.
One of the pipe bombs was mailed to Congresswoman Maxine Waters, someone Trump has called “an extraordinarily low IQ person.” Think about that insult, coming from the president of the United States, in the context of this country’s history of violent white supremacy. While Trump has accused Waters of supporting violence, in fact it is Trump who openly called for violence against black protesters, journalists, women, and undocumented immigrants, among others. In this regard, Trump is completely typical. He is a re-assertion of America’s history, not a deviation from it. He’s a relapse, not a new disease. “Make America great again,” indeed.
Does this mean that America is a lost cause? I don’t know. I do know that more pipe bombs are coming. We can count on it. I don’t believe the bombs will disappear because we stick our heads in the sand. We cannot for a moment imagine, as Tomasky did, that the system will somehow right itself. We need to name racism for what it is; in naming it, we need to put ourselves against it, in the same way the Union did in the 19th century and the Civil Rights movement did in the 1960s. Win or lose, we have to take that stand.