I remember very well the last time America was gripped with panic over impending racial violence. It was in the fall of 2001, after 19 Middle Eastern hijackers, mostly from Saudi Arabia, pulverized the World Trade Center and ripped a gash into the Pentagon, murdering nearly 3,000 people while trying to massacre several times more.
There were hundreds of news articles that autumn warning of a potential domestic backlash against suspected Muslims. President George W. Bush, his anxiety palpable, went out of his way to pay visits to Mohammadan places of worship, and praise Islam as a "religion of peace." The lefter regions of the political spectrum produced serial expressions of preemptive dread, such as Barbara Kingsolver's Sept. 25 pronouncement that American patriotism "despises people of foreign birth" and "threatens free speech with death." Many of us with memories stretching back to the Iran hostage crisis braced ourselves for a long and unhappy season of rag-head jokes, open vandalism, and worse.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Arab-American lynching: not bloody much. A Sikh gas station owner was murdered in Mesa, Arizona. A Hindu temple was firebombed in Matawan, New Jersey. Reports of harassment and non-deadly violence briefly spiked up. Each was awful enough, but as a tapestry of violence it fell far short of the widely predicted wave of hate crime. Americans, derided as "hateful" bigots by the likes of Kingsolver, and revenge-minded rubes by those with better manners, were not only opting out of vigilante violence, they were cramming bestseller lists with musty old books about Afghanistan and the Middle East.
As the religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr later observed, after having spent several months on the post-Sept. 11 hate-crimes beat, "In the very week when the nation suffered a grievous injury from a stateless criminal gang that identified itself by its members' religion—as Muslims–some Americans chose to express concern and friendship toward their Muslim neighbors....It makes a far more interesting story about contemporary America than I had imagined."
That is the American story to keep in mind when reading, every day for the rest of this summer at least, about the "incendiary mix of political passion, weird thinking and weaponry" that "is likely to explode" in Obama's America. Under direct, terrorizing attack from a stateless band of brown-skinned terrorists representing apocalyptic Islam, Americans as individuals largely turned the other cheek, even seeking interfaith understanding with their attackers' co-religionists. Yet faced eight years later with a vague, non-life-threatening "new era of cultural and demographic change" (which, according to New York Times columnist Frank Rich, is "the biggest contributor to this resurgence of radicalism"), the rednecks are allegedly on the verge of a rampage.
"Violence" is "in the air," warned Woodrow Wilson International Center scholar Jamie Stiehm, in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed that revisited the 1830s torching of an abolitionist-built hall in the City of Brotherly Love. "If it could happen there and then, it could happen here and now." The American right's "recurrent" and "deep-seated problem with political violence," warned popular liberal blogger Josh Marshall, "endangers the country." The "election of Barack Obama," wrote Mother Jones' James Ridgeway, "adds even more fuel to nativist rage." Lefty historian-of-the-right Rick Perlstein, in a Washington Post chat to discuss his theory that "the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy," analogized anti-Obama protesters to "brownshirts" and "Nazi street thugs" in Weimar Germany, warning that "authoritarian takeovers of nations happen, they happen slowly, and it's a process." Washington Post columnist and regular public broadcast commentator E.J. Dionne went even further with the Nazi comparisons, describing this summer's town hall disputes as "the politics of the jackboot." Dionne added:
[V]iolence and the threat of violence have always been used by those who wanted to bypass democratic procedures and the rule of law. Lynching was the act of those who refused to let the legal system do its work. Guns were used on election days in the Deep South during and after Reconstruction to intimidate black voters and take control of state governments.
Yes, I have raised the racial issue, and it is profoundly troubling that firearms should begin to appear with some frequency at a president's public events only now, when the president is black. [...]
[I]f we can't draw the line at the threat of violence, democracy begins to disintegrate. Power, not reason, becomes the stuff of political life.
These are indeed "profoundly troubling" charges, which makes one wonder why they're being bandied about with such flippant regard for historical plausibility.
The "jackboot" analogy, for starters, breaks down at the ankle: The footwear was favored by enforcers for totalitarian governments, not random Ron Paul supporters flashing Thomas Jefferson quotes outside political events. Weimar-era brownshirts were an organized Nazi paramilitary group perpetrating calculated violence against political opponents in a hyperinflationary, recently humiliated country that had never enjoyed liberal democracy; not a dozen-plus scattered gun nuts in one of the world's oldest democracies peacably (if jarringly) exercising their Second Amendment rights by keeping their guns holstered (not "brandishing" them, as Rich and countless others have claimed). The last actual lynching in America, depending on who you ask, took place in 1981; the atrocious practice had been all but dead since the 1960s.
To fear the Weimarization of America, or the return of lynching, is to fundamentally lack confidence in the very real progress the United States has made over the past several decades. Conditions have improved exponentially even since the post-lynching 1980s, when I was coming of voting age. Back then there was still a politics to be had in bashing Martin Luther King, supporting apartheid South Africa, whipping up fears of black ultra-violence, and otherwise appealing openly to white resentment against blacks. It was gross, it was reckless, it led to terrible policies, and it was the reason I permanently swore off joining the Republican Party. It's also largely an artifact of the past.
The last white-resentment candidate to win a Republican presidential primary was Pat Buchanan in 1996. George W. Bush first rose to national prominence as the immigration-embracing, border-state anti-Pete Wilson, and as president he never did have a Caucasian secretary of state. The party's most popular politician in the 1990s was arguably Colin Powell. John McCain in his many books has repeatedly singled out the heroism of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge back in 1965, and such is his distaste for racially coded politics that he slammed one of his own supporters just for repeating Barack Obama's middle name three times in a warmup speech. When Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2002 expressed retroactive support for Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat campaign for president, he was pressured by other Republicans to resign his leadership, and eventually (though not soon enough) limped out of the Senate. The GOP chairman these days may be a dolt, but he's probably not a racist.
The political market on race-baiting politics has spoken, and resoundingly. We have, not irrelevantly, elected a black president with a weird, foreign-sounding name. Anti-immigration politics, certainly fueled in part by paranoid xenophobia, are persistently unpopular. Republican attempts to make a big deal out of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark failed to resonate with the public, and she sailed on through the confirmation process. Affirmative action just isn't much of a hot political topic anymore, even though its impact is still real and widespread.
Worrying about the latent potential for widespread, race-based violence requires thinking either that the American public conceals its racism from its electoral preferences, or that the fringe holds disproportionate, menacing power. As Jesse Walker has frequently noted in these pages, such centrist paranoia inevitably tells us more about the attitudes of those expressing the fear than it does about contemporary America. It's a timely reminder that near the foundation of both major political tendencies in this country lies a disturbing lack of faith in the country they take turns misgoverning.