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Can America inoculate against the dire threat of ‘us vs. them’?

As false claims of a Trump victory stoke political violence, the US must launch a grand effort to rebuild a society in which disagreement is not deadly
Screenshot from The New Yorker's "A Reporter’s Video from Inside the Capitol Siege"
Screenshot from The New Yorker's "A Reporter’s Video from Inside the Capitol Siege"

Our country seems like it’s falling apart as millions are convinced Donald Trump was elected and our democracy subverted. The Capitol insurrection on January 6 was a warning shot and political violence will likely become more frequent. We need new thinking — a “Manhattan Project” — to figure out how to stitch our country back together, and perhaps make it even stronger.

On a much smaller scale, twenty-six years ago, human rights experts from around the US gathered in Washington State to compare notes about the militia movement. The militias were grounded in white supremacy, wrapped in distorted trappings of patriotism, and fueled by conspiracy theories. The movement was arming against and threatening government, and growing exponentially. How was it spreading so quickly? Part of the answer, we discovered, was technology. Fax machines and, especially, early online bulletin boards and newsgroups had supplanted mailed newsletters as preferred means of communication. It was much easier, quicker and cheaper to spread rumors this way, and also to create a community that believed zealously in an alternative “truth.” Some local sheriffs, legislators, and even a member of Congress or two gave this movement steam. There was a “them” (federal and other officials) coming for “us” (white people, gun owners) to take our rights away. Fighting back, with threats of violence and violence itself, was not only condoned, it was marketed as patriotic.

What we collectively learned resulted in a public warning that this movement was increasingly paranoid, increasingly violent, and likely to attack, particularly on April 19, 1995, the two-year anniversary of the deadly government attack on the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, Texas, a sacred symbol for the militias. The warnings went unheeded, the Oklahoma City Federal Building was blown up, and only then did the federal government finally take these fringe groups seriously.

I’m haunted by this reflection: What if the movement hadn’t been fringe, but had millions of followers and sympathizers, or at least millions who believed in one of the militias’ foundational alternative “truths?” What if, instead of fax machines and bulletin boards, people were building community while sharing rumors, strong beliefs, and conspiracy theories on social media, always connected through their phones? What if instead of a minor public figure here or there spouting militia-speak, it was the president of the United States? What if, after the Oklahoma City bombing, politicians said the conspiracies were true instead of denying there were secret government plots to take away people’s rights? What if the “sacred symbol” wasn’t tied to a particular date, but was an ongoing condition, like a belief that the presidential election was “stolen,” not stolen from Trump so much as from “us?”

That’s the situation as Joe Biden begins his presidency. Trump and his minions will continue to deny his defeat, tell Americans that their democracy was stolen and that it is patriotic, essential, to fight to get it back, against people who may look like our elected leaders, but are traitors. Yes, there will now be disclaimers about being “peaceable,” but the big lie will still inspire mobs and lone wolves to violence. For zealots who see the world this way, the attack on the Capitol is not a cautionary tale but an inspiration, an example of a first step that almost worked, setting the foundation for future actions. What if a legislator or the Vice President had been kidnapped or killed, as was evidently the goal of some of those who breached the Capitol? Imagine the increased focus on their movement if there had been even more bloodshed. And this fantasy will continue to be stoked as Trump’s role in the insurrection will remain front-page news, not only from the impeachment hearings and from his inevitable pronouncements, but also from possible state and other prosecutions of him and his family once he leaves office, and as hundreds of his supporters are prosecuted for their role in the insurrection in criminal cases around the country, portrayed by some as martyrs.

Not every future act of political violence will be at a (now) fortified target like the Capitol or statehouses. Trump spent four years calling the press “the enemy of the people.” One can imagine attacks on newspapers, cable news providers and journalists. And given the anti-Semites in the movement and the role anti-Semitism inevitably plays in conspiratorial thinking, the possibility of attacks on Jewish targets, such as synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, let alone Jewish members of Congress, is a real concern. 

How do we rebuild our republic?

So, what should our political leadership do in the coming weeks, beyond investigating the Capitol breach, upping security and arresting and prosecuting those who participated in the riot? One hope is that more Republicans and conservative media will debunk the “big lie,” and acknowledge that Biden was truly elected president. Even though many hard-liners would see such an acknowledgment as further evidence of a “deep state conspiracy” against Trump and them, it would be a positive step.

Having a president like Biden who expresses empathy, and who refuses to fuel the “us” versus “them” instinct, is also a start. But it is not enough. And there are no simple answers.

What’s needed more than anything is better thinking on what’s needed. We need a Presidential or Congressional commission to examine all aspects of our predicament, not only how we got to the present moment and how we minimize the risk of further political violence, but also how we rebuild our republic as the vibrant democracy it needs to be, because as the strength of democratic institutions erodes, the conditions for hate on an even a broader scale emerge. 

We need to start with the basics: mine everything we know about how, as humans, we are seduced by the instinct to see an “us” and “them,” and dehumanize or demonize that “them” in order to understand our world. Various components of the emerging field of hate studies shed light on this – when our identity is welded to an issue of perceived social justice or injustice, our thinking changes. We crave certainty, see things in black and white, substitute “easy” answers instead of wrestling with difficult questions. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes, morality both blinds and binds (and both sides of this crisis see things in starkly moral terms). 

We need to understand better how politicians can so easily tap into hateful instincts, and what works to reduce their success. There are many urgent questions. How we communicate. How our communities are defined. How we strengthen our democratic institutions and uphold our democratic principles like free speech and equal protection under the law. We need to rediscover old ways, and find new ones, that allow people to express and address grievances without succumbing to the seduction of the too-easy answer that “our” problems are simple to understand: it’s a plot by “them.” Love isn’t the antidote for hate, empathy and the imagination and experience to empathize are. How do we re-enforce these societal instincts?

For all the problems of the Trump era, Operation Warp Speed produced vaccines in less than a year. Hate is a more complex and long-established part of the human condition than Covid 19. It has also killed many more. And there is no simple shot-in-the-arm cure. We think about it, study it, wrestle with it too little at our peril. Bromides like “more education” or “better policing,” aren’t enough anymore, if they ever were. Our political leadership must bring together the brightest minds to figure out what we – as individuals, as communities, as academics, as business people, as politicians, as citizens – can, and must do to rebuild a social fabric to which everyone belongs, and within which even fundamental disagreements are less likely to lead to political violence, terror, intimidation and further erosion of our democracy.

About the Author
Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, and the author most recently of The Conflict over The Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee's expert on antisemitism, and he was also the lead drafter of the “Working Definition of Antisemitism."
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