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Vigilante Violence Is Part of the Right’s Plan
The open embrace of violence plays a key role in the broader reactionary mobilization against democracy
Not that more evidence was really needed, but the mask has fully slipped in the reactions to the killing of Jordan Neely on the New York City subway. We are staring at the contemporary American Right’s true face, at the essence of what defines the reactionary political project. It is a terrifying sight.
Please spare me any version of “How did you not know this? How is this news to you?!?” in response. I’m not saying it is news, or comes as a surprise – not to me, nor to any other serious observer of the Right’s recent past and present. And yet, there is something shocking and terrifying about the reactions on the Right. And I believe it is important to articulate that.
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Public reactions – not just from the rightwing extremist fringes on social media, but from “respectable” conservatives as well as quite a few self-proclaimed centrists and moderates – have been incredibly discouraging and infuriating. In his “Unpopular Front” newsletter, John Ganz really captured what I find so disturbing:
“What people are essentially saying is ‘this man’s life was worthless’ and, as a result of his criminal record, ‘he had it coming.’ … Neely’s death has been described as a lynching. This is an extremely grave thing to charge. But what seems completely unquestionable to me is that the people who have shown cruel indifference or contempt or glee about the killing of Jordan Neely are the spiritual equivalent of a lynch mob even if his death was accidental or a crime of passion rather than premeditation. They are part of a lynch mob after the fact. They have decided—on reflection, out of personal danger, and with malice aforethought, as they say of murder—that Neely’s life was worthless. Any many apparently feel total comfort howling like a lynch mob in public.”
The Right embraces the violence
Since Ganz wrote this, Daniel Penny, the man who choked Neely to death, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter in Manhattan. It should be up to a court to decide what comes next. But that’s not how rightwingers see it: They are furious and have apparently decided that they are not going to hold back their rage or bother with the usual dog whistles.
Here, for instance, is what rightwing pundit Richard Hanania had to say:
“Daniel Penny getting charged. These people are animals, whether they’re harassing people in subways or walking around in suits.”
I find it very difficult to construct a plausible version of who “these people” are supposed to be that’s not brutally racist. Hanania, by the way, is regarded as an important thinker on the Right – and quite a few “respectable” people on the Center-Right and Center still regularly present this guy as someone with whom we should engage and whose thoughts and observations we should take seriously.
Political leaders on the Right have also chimed on. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, for instance, tried to put as many rightwing conspiracy theories as possible into just one tweet:
“We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left's pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law abiding citizens. We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let’s show this Marine... America’s got his back.”
This is quite the deranged reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan. And yet, that’s become a prominent talking point on the Right: Daniel Penny, the Subway Samaritan, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board put it. It’s indicative of where things stand, and it comes just a few weeks after Texas governor Greg Abbott announced that he intended to pardon avowed racist Daniel Perry just 24 hours after he had been convicted by a jury of murdering a protestor at a Black Lives Matter protest.
All strands of the Right – Republican elected officials, the media machine, the reactionary intellectual sphere, the conservative base – are openly and aggressively embracing rightwing vigilante violence.
This all sends a clear message: It encourages white militants to use whatever force they please to “fight back” against anything and anyone associated with “the Left” by protecting and glorifying those who have engaged in vigilante violence – call it the Kyle Rittenhouse dogma. In August 2020, Rittenhouse killed two men and wounded a third during the protests after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. For his actions, he was widely celebrated on the Right as a patriotic hero. He was interviewed by Tucker Carlson, met with Donald Trump, far-right extremists inside Congress were dreaming about welcoming Rittenhouse as one of their own, jostling for the opportunity to have him as an intern, to promote and encourage his rise to political stardom.
Rittenhouse’s celebration on the Right marked a key moment. Obviously, white vigilante violence is not a new phenomenon in U.S. history, nor is the fact that it found widespread support from reactionary forces and institutions. But while we need to emphasize long-standing anti-democratic tendencies, impulses, ideas, and movements on the Right, it’s also crucial to grapple with the significant radicalization of conservative politics in the past few years. This was obvious in the Obama era, as a direct response to the election of the first Black president – and once again since the summer of 2020 and the anti-racist mobilization of civil society after the murder of George Floyd, which has dominated much of the reactionary imagination.
Vigilante violence vs democracy
The Right is defined by a political and social culture of white grievance, ethno-religious nationalism, gun fundamentalism, toxic masculinity, and glorified militancy – it is bound to produce many iterations of Kyle Rittenhouse. It is very hard to achieve and sustain multiracial, pluralistic democracy under such circumstances. From the Right’s point of view, that’s exactly the point, and the larger significance of this open embrace of vigilante violence. In the broader context of the political conflict, it serves a specific purpose as part of the reactionary counter-mobilization.
The Right’s political project goes well beyond Congress and state legislatures: It’s about restoring and entrenching traditional hierarchies of race, gender, religion, and wealth in the local community, in the public square, in the workplace, in the family. Rightwingers are fully committed to this anti-democratic, anti-pluralistic vision – which they understand is a minoritarian project: They are acutely aware that they don’t have numerical majorities, and they have developed a comprehensive strategy to put their vision into practice anyway.
The voter suppression, the gerrymandering, the efforts to subvert elections up and down the country, the rightwing capture of the courts… Those are not disparate actions, but the manifestation of what is the core tenet of the rightwing worldview: Only white conservatives are allowed to rule in America – opposition to this vision is regarded as fundamentally illegitimate. The Right understands that such blatant undermining of democracy might lead to a mobilization of civil society. That’s why Republicans are criminalizing protests, by defining them as “riots,” by legally sanctioning physical attacks on “rioters,” by not only condoning but actively encouraging vigilante violence against “the Left.”
Beyond just functioning as a tool for upholding political power, white vigilante violence also serves as a way to enforce the underlying vision for a society in which some people – white men, in particular – have the absolute right to defend their place, status, and “comfort.” America is built on a social order that gives white men, specifically, the power to use whatever form of violence they deem necessary to “defend” themselves against all threats from “others,” real and perceived. The Right wants to preserve that order.
This order is predicated on an expansive idea of what constitutes a “threat”: Black people, for instance, are seen as inherently threatening; and there is not much of a line separating what makes white people “uncomfortable” from what is defined as acutely dangerous. According to the Right, conservative white Christians – by virtue of supposedly being the sole proponents of “real America” – shouldn’t never have to deal with the kind of challenges and “discomfort” an egalitarian, multiracial, pluralistic society entails. In this view, it is the prerogative of conservative white Christians to dominate the public square, to have their own image reflected back at them at all times, to lash out against whoever and whatever challenges their dominant status or dares to make them “uncomfortable.”
This is what the Right’s political project has always been built on, its organizing principle: The premise that some groups are worthy of protection and deserve privilege – while others are dangerous and need to be kept in check. The Right envisions a society in which white conservatives are enabled to serve as deputies of the white nationalist state to help keep those “others” in check, and to enforce a reactionary social and moral order through the threat of vigilante violence that is propagandized as an act of patriotic duty.
Late Weimar vibes
I have seen several people whose opinions I trust suggest that the Right’s embrace of vigilante violence is reminiscent of the situation in Weimar Germany. I generally try to stay away from references to the rise of the Nazis and the demise of democracy in Europe’s interwar period as analogies for the current moment in U.S. history. I’m hoping to write more about this and offer a substantive reflection soon. For now, my default position is that the most instructive analogies, the most important traditions and continuities, are not to be found in Europe’s past, but in U.S. history. Specifically, instead of reaching for the 1930s in Germany right away, I believe we should pay more attention to how moments of social and racial progress in the United States were met with violent counter-mobilizations: against the country’s first attempt at interracial democracy after the Civil War for instance, or against the civil rights revolution in the 1950s and 60s.
And yet, in this case, I find it rather difficult to shake the Weimar vibes. The Weimar analogy is quite apt because it sharpens our attention for a constellation in which vigilantism and political violence were widely seen as justified and necessary among Germany’s radical Right, but also among its more mainstream conservative enablers – all because of a perceived threat from the extreme Left that seemed to override everything else.
This is where scholars of German and European history have tended to diagnose the breakdown of the analogy, as they contend that a key element of the Weimar constellation is missing in the current U.S. context: The presence of strong communist movements and parties that could, in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, be perceived as a credible leftwing threat. This particular criticism of the Weimar analogy, however, doesn’t adequately grapple with the fact that in the minds of the American Right, such a radical leftist threat does absolutely exist. In fact, the Right derives the permission to radicalize ever further entirely from the idea that the country is about to be destroyed from within by “the Left.”
What are they giving themselves permission to do?
Every time I mention how the Right is embracing vigilantism against its enemies and the threat of political violence against supposedly “Un-American” forces, I get a flurry of “Where were you when those woke barbarians destroyed our cities in the summer of 2020?! The violence is coming from the Left!!!” replies. This has become dogma on the Right: That the country is facing an onslaught from a radically “Un-American,” extremist “Left” that is violently threatening to destroy everything the nation is supposed to stand for. The Democratic Party, in this view, has been taken over by those forces. There is, of course, a long tradition of conservatives deriding anything that threatens the social and racial hierarchy, any sort of leveling attempt, as “communism” or “socialism” and using those terms to demonize anyone who dares to question the righteousness of white reactionary elite rule. Even at the height of the Cold War, conservative anti-“communism” was always also, and often predominantly, an anti-liberal stance against the “leftist” enemy within.
Some parts of the Right were never content with accepting the post-1960s reality of multiracial democracy even in a warped, highly flawed form and railed against what they saw as the acquiescence and appeasement of the “radical Left,” advocating for a strategy of resistance that very much included and certainly condoned political violence. Until recently, the established story of modern conservatism’s emergence insisted that those far-right forces had been marginalized, confined to the irrelevant fringe, by the gatekeepers of the “respectable” Right. However, rightwing extremism was never fully purged from mainstream conservatism. And after Obama was elected president, the idea that Republicans were selling out “real” America, that more drastic action was urgently needed, was spreading fast into the center of conservative politics. In this view, the first Black president, often derided as a socialist despite his eminently moderate liberal philosophy, was the incarnation of the radical “Other”: The “Left” was winning, destroying the country, and Republican appeasement was complicit. The summer of 2020 further escalated this perception of imminent threat on the Right: It has become a key element of rightwing political identity to view the protests that erupted across the country after the murder of George Floyd as the manifestation of this acute radical leftist threat in the form of widespread street violence – as irrefutable proof that “the Left” had started its full-on assault on “real America.”
This interpretation provides the permission structure for the ongoing anti-democratic radicalization and the increasingly open embrace of political violence on the Right. Building up this supposedly totalitarian threat from the “Left” enables them to justify their actions within the long-established framework of conservative self-victimization. It’s a permission structure that doesn’t ever allow for moderation, de-escalation, or retreat. Clinging to the idea that “They won’t go *that* far” is both futile and dangerous: They absolutely will, because they have convinced themselves that the other side has already gone *much further* and will stop at nothing.
What are they giving themselves permission to do? That is the key question, politically as well as analytically, when dealing with the Right. And an honest assessment of that question should leave no doubt that American democracy is currently in an acutely perilous situation.
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