The Dangerous Lure of Political Violence

How seriously should we take the threats of protesters who recently built guillotines outside of Jeff Bezos' house?


Just down the street from the Reason offices in D.C., protesters recently built a guillotine. No necks were harmed that night; it wasn't fully functional. But they did it in front of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' house, and the message was clear: While we aren't going to do violence to you personally right now, we want you to know that we think capitalist billionaires like you are so terrible that some violence may, in fact, be justified. Another iteration of the guillotine had popped up a couple of weeks earlier in front of the White House, with similar implications for the president and his allies.

The question, which has taken on increasing importance as Election Day draws near, is how seriously (or literally) to take such threats.

The best-case scenario is that what we are seeing in the streets is essentially LARPing. If you don't know what LARPing is: Congratulations. I bet the parties you got invited to in high school were fun! It stands for "live action role playing," and the most common manifestation is a small group of costumed nerds staging some form of simulated combat, often in a campus quadrangle or public park.

Like the guillotinesmiths of Kalorama, the lefty protesters of Seattle and Portland—dressed in activist goth chic and ostentatiously practicing maneuvers with shields—are looking to trigger disgust and panic in those who disagree with their aims or tactics, and boy is it working. The same is true of the Unite the Right marchers who turned up in Charlottesville three years ago and later in the Pacific Northwest to provoke fear and intimidate their opponents while wearing matching polo shirts and wielding tiki torches.

"So far, this revolutionary playacting has been more annoying than terrifying," Cathy Young writes in this month's cover story, an account of the events leading up to France's Reign of Terror with an eye toward the parallels to the present day (page 18). "It's about trolling, not killing, the enemy. But it still signals an embrace of bloodthirsty rhetoric—and of ideological homage to one of history's bloodier leftist dictatorships."

There are reasons to believe the situation in American cities could take a more deadly turn, however. For one thing, it did in Charlottesville, when counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed. And it already has in Portland, where Reason contributor Nancy Rommelmann has covered the monthslong conflict between the antifa "black bloc" and the various right-leaning factions that oppose it. The activists in Portland have been busy attempting, mostly without success, to set fire to various government buildings downtown. Failing that, they settle for dumpsters. They had their own guillotines there, of course, one of which conscripted a teddy bear to stand in for reviled Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler.

But there have been repeated clashes, not only between the protesters and law enforcement but also between rival activist factions, including the now-infamous right-wing Proud Boys. At the end of August, those tensions culminated in the killing of Aaron "Jay" Danielson by a deeply troubled man who identified as antifa.

The actions of the shooter, writes Rommelmann, are "a symptom of what happens when a movement gets such a glow that it attracts people ready to take things to the next level. For most people, fatal violence causes an instinct to recoil, to take a step back and reconsider. But not for everyone."

This is the very definition of a vicious cycle. As the less committed folks step back because they sense that things have gone too far, only the most hardcore remain in the field, ready to rumble. "That things will get worse before they get better seems inevitable," writes Rommelmann. "A movement that justifies intimidation and violence moves in only one direction, and anyone who says they did not see this coming to the streets of Portland has not been paying attention."

There are signs that ordinary people are becoming more likely to support this kind of violence, if not engage in it themselves. In October, a group of researchers published a disheartening set of survey responses in Politico. They found that 36 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said it is at least "a little" justified for their side "to use violence in advancing political goals." Those numbers are slightly higher if you specify the loss of an election as the trigger for violence.

The more extreme someone's political views, the more likely they are to believe violence is justified to achieve them. Among those who identify as "very liberal," 26 percent said there would be "a great deal" of justification for violence if the Democratic candidate loses the presidency. Among the "very conservative," that figure is 16 percent if the Republican candidate loses.

These numbers are up significantly from June, but the trend begins much earlier. This is neither a left nor a right phenomenon, no matter how desperately each side would like that to be the case. No one "started it." No one side is picking the fight. This is a change in views about political violence across the board.

The new survey builds on a longstanding body of work by two of the authors, Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, who have also found that polarization seems to be directly connected to dehumanization, with 20 percent of Republicans and 15 percent of Democrats agreeing in 2018 that members of the other party "lack the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals."

A 2019 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put a finer point on the ways in which this electoral cycle may be particularly ripe for conflict, declaring that "experimental evidence shows inducing expectations of electoral victory give strong partisans more confidence to endorse violence against their partisan opponents."

Recall that one of this spring's most outrageous instances of cancel culture at work was indirectly about the question of tolerance for political violence as well: A Civis Analytics researcher lost his job after tweeting out an academic study by Princeton's Omar Wasow about how violent protesters may undermine the electoral goals of their allies. He was accused of "concern trolling" and "minimizing black grief and rage" and subsequently fired in what appeared to be a direct response to the tweet. Not only are people more willing to condone violence across the board, but at the extremes some are also less willing to even entertain talk about why such violence might be a bad idea.

There is one additional complicating factor here: The meaning of the word violence is in flux. Speech is increasingly described as violence. Sometimes silence is also violence, especially in conversations about race. In certain circles, conversely, it's now up for debate whether property destruction counts as violence, with activists pushing back on the idea that the damage to homes and businesses in the wake of this summer's Black Lives Matter protests should be taken into consideration at all.

It's a mistake to conflate bad tweets with revolutionary violence, but it is worth pointing out that in the waning days of the election season, Bhaskar Sunkara, a co-founder of the aptly named Jacobin magazine, tweeted: "I think killing little Romanov children was justified. But it's not surprising why these views are controversial given most people's ethical and moral frameworks."

Sunkara ultimately took down the tweet. But the thing he may have been most wrong about was the notion that most people's moral and ethical frameworks can't accommodate violence in the name of political change. Increasing numbers of Americans see those who disagree with them as subhuman and view politics as a worthy cause for violence, even if they're not ready or willing to do violence themselves. For these new Jacobins, the romance of the guillotine persists.