Within the institutions that cater to the American left, a contradictory notion has taken hold. It has become an article of faith that the right is responsible for the rising tide of political violence in America. At the same time, however, those who engage in violence in defense of the left’s program are often lauded for their refusal to adhere to outdated and insufficient norms of civil conduct.
Since the 1980s, “the extreme right has held a near-monopoly on political violence,” wrote the Nation’s Joshua Holland in 2017. A “decades-long drop-off in violence by left-wing groups,” coincided with a shocking rise in murderous violence by “right-wing extremists,” read a 2018 report from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. The idea of the “violent left” is even a “myth,” the Southern Poverty Law Center averred just last week, designed to radicalize the right to preemptively attack its political adversaries. And when murderous left-wing violence occurs, it is contextualized into insignificance, as was the case when NPR opened a report on the mass shooting of Republicans in Alexandria with the line: “Some conservatives have seized on Wednesday’s shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise…”
But when mythological left-wing violence becomes impossible to ignore, it is often excused or even lionized—sometimes in the very venues in which its existence is dismissed.
Dartmouth College lecturer and “historian of human rights,” Mark Bray, has refashioned himself as America’s foremost Antifa apologist. In his book and in places like the Washington Post, he’s argued that “physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective.” The Nation’s Natasha Lennard has similarly praised this organization’s “militant left-wing and anarchist politics,” and mocked its critics as “civility-fetishizing” liberals who “cling to institutions.” Nor is Antifa alone in this campaign. A Mother Jones profile of the many left-of-center grassroots groups whose resistance “sometimes goes beyond nonviolent protest—including picking up arms” is anything but condemnatory. Given this preamble, it’s hardly a surprise to see how the arbiters of national political discourse responded to the recent Antifa-led gang assault on the journalist Andy Ngo.
Ngo has dedicated himself to chronicling Antifa’s increasingly menacing activities, particularly in his home city of Portland, Oregon. He’s videotaped Antifa mobs beating people bloody, capturing control of city blocks and attacking passing motorists, and vandalizing property—all without police interference. This weekend, Ngo himself became the target of Antifa violence. A crowd of demonstrators, clad in black and with their faces covered, were seen taking turns throwing objects at Ngo, beating him about the head, and spraying caustic substances in his face. The reporter was hospitalized with head trauma, one of several victims of this mob’s bloodlust.
The violence against Ngo received nationwide coverage… on Twitter. When it was discussed at more length in the press, it was subjected to the kind of deconstruction that robs these violent episodes of their urgency. National Review’s Jim Geraghty observed the Oregonian take pains to avoid ruling out the possibility that Ngo’s assailants were provoked to the point of savage violence. Huffington Post reporter Christopher Mathias and briefly retained New York University journalism lecturer Talia Levin mocked the assault as insufficiently bloody. Countless reporters and institutions, including the Associated Press, questioned Ngo’s journalistic credentials—a non sequitur that serves no higher purpose than tacitly legitimizing the attack on him.
Ngo’s ordeal should not have come as a surprise, and not just among those who recall how journalists were attacked and their equipment vandalized by leftwing protesters in Virginia less than a year ago. As I chronicle in detail in my book, political violence has been on the rise for years and it is at least as attributable to the left as it is the right.
In August of 2016, as the American press was consumed by the theoretical prospect of mass violence meted out by Donald Trump’s supporters, the observable phenomenon of anti-Trump mob violence was going all but unnoticed. Both the spontaneous and organized forms of “anti-fascist action” had become a common feature of the political landscape on the activist fringes by August of that election year. The fever hadn’t broken by October, when a Republican Party office in North Carolina was firebombed, nor did it abate by inauguration day, when over 200 people were arrested in connection with a nationwide spasm of rioting and property destruction. The far left’s urge to engage in political violence was on display in Berkeley, California, in 2017, where two scheduled pro-Trump rallies ended in bloodshed. The far left’s violent impulses were seen last year, when Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s California offices were attacked and burglarized, a gunman shot up a GOP satellite office in Florida, and a New York City Republican union hall was vandalized.
Post-hoc justifications for engaging in politics by other means are not hard to find. “Abandoning civility,” the Atlantic staff writer Vann Newkirk wrote in 2016, is necessary when engaging with people who “have already breached the bounds of civility.” You can see shades of this logic reflected in this weekend’s op-eds in the Washington Post by Red Hen restaurant owner Stephanie Wilkinson, who called on her fellow restaurateurs to deny service to “an unwelcome potential patron” because of his or her politics. It’s evident in a Saturday New York Times opinion piece, which called on Americans to name and shame their fellow citizens who work in border patrol. These are not incitements to violence, but nor do they see the traditional conduct of politics as sufficient to the urgency of the moment. What’s required of responsible citizens is the total national merging of public and private life, and common courtesies are a luxury we can no longer afford.
In a society in which politics is tantamount to fighting an existential war, observing the bounds of civic decency is tantamount to suicide. To certain minds, the notion that it is a moral imperative to drum people of a particular political persuasion out of civic and cultural life demands violence. Anything less is capitulatory.
Of course, it must be said that the right has its own violent fringe, which it has failed to sufficiently denounce and has encouraged by confusing political disagreements with existential crises. It only must be said, however, because the professionally obtuse will try to claim that any condemnation of leftist political violence tacitly condones its mirror image on the right. This kind of intellectual vacuity is sadly common. It also explains why there is almost no urgency within the political class to make examples of their side’s reprehensibly anti-social activists—there isn’t much upside and there is a lot of risk involved. But it seems increasingly likely that the growing menace posed by politicized street violence will one day focus the public’s minds on the problem. The only question is the scale of the tragedy that will force us to confront the threat.