September 7, 2020

The other day in an interview, Donald Trump began talking about a plane “almost completely loaded with thugs, wearing these dark uniforms” travelling across America to organise anti-police protests. Noting this rather alarming line of thought from the commander-in-chief, the historian Simon Schama pointed out that such “fantasies” can have real world effects.

Trump, Schama claimed, was occupying the same territory as the French peasants did in 1789: in the summer of that year a Great Fear descended, including a terror of “brigands” working for the aristocracy. The brigands did not actually exist but the fear caused the peasants to organise themselves and become the armed guard of the revolution.

Trump’s brigands — the imaginary men in dark clothes — could be hugely useful, for as Schama put it: “In this case they could be the phalanxes of American counter-revolution — or fascism.” Might this be true?

There has been much chatter about what Donald Trump might do if he were to lose in November. Or, more to the point, what might he do if he wins — or seems to be winning — on the night of the election only to lose when postal votes are counted over the days (or weeks) afterwards? Who knows what his supporters might be capable of?

But there is another question, asked less often but certainly looming in the background this autumn. What would the Democrats and their supporters do if they lost?

Not Joe Biden — we know he’d go quietly. But what about the anti-Trump protesters on the streets of Portland, Oregon, of Seattle, of Chicago, of Washington DC itself. The bandana wearers. The stone throwers. The corner store looters.

Donald Trump’s disinclination to accept defeat is rather well known, but his opponents on the Left are assumed to be hewn from more democratic timber. For all the complaints about Russian interference and other criminality, they sucked it up in 2016.Would they, again?

It has to be an open question. It may become — if Trump hauls himself out of the electoral mess he is in — a central question, on which the future of America hinges, and polling does not lead to optimism: already 28% of Biden supporters say they will not accept a Trump victory as fair and accurate, compared to 19% of Trump voters.

The forces of the American Left are not controlled by shadowy figures in dark clothes, but they are organised and angry in a way that they have not been in recent history. So what do they believe is acceptable in the effort to resist Donald Trump, and how far will they go?

If you are searching for a view of the intellectual and moral slack the American far-Left is cutting itself, look no further than gentle old National Public Radio. More than a decade ago, when I lived in the US, NPR was genially Left-of-centre, but not aggressively so. Last week it revealed itself to be — in the eyes of many Americans — quite unhinged, publishing an interview with Vicky Osterweil, the author of a book called In Defense of Looting.

Osterweil made two assertions, the first being that looting is justified because it attacks the idea of private property and the world of work: “So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.”

The second is that stealing from shops is part of the wider movement for change in America: “Looting strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police,” she said: “It gets to the very root of the way those three things are interconnected. And also it provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be. And I think that’s a part of it that doesn’t really get talked about — that riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory.”

None of this is robustly challenged, and this was not some sociology professor playing with edgy thoughts on campus — it was an interview conducted and disseminated by one of the most important mainstream broadcasters in the USA, a non-profit devoted to ideals of impartiality and truth.

It is fair to consider at least the possibility that the interview is evidence that something has snapped. In NPR, as in other places where Left-wing thought is explored (and used to be challenged), it has become acceptable to treat looting with respect. In fact it has become necessary, part of the struggle for racial justice. So, in the event of a Trump victory, what actions would be seen as proportionate and reasonable on the Left?

We do not really know any more; what we do know is that Joe Biden’s denunciation of violence — unequivocal and heartfelt and sympathetically reported by most of the media — is not regarded as wise or just by large segments of his supporters.

The writer Elie Mystal — the Harvard-educated Justice Correspondent for the The Nation, the oldest weekly magazine in America and home to the thoughtful centre-Left — had this to say about calls for restraint and non-violence: “Now comes the part where white people abandon us. Now comes the part where the white majority impatiently demands a return to normalcy. Now comes the part where white people say, ‘I believe that Black Lives Matter, but…’”

Mystal concludes: “I knew a majority of white people would revert to form and regress to their mean, because a majority of white people were always going to value their own comfort over justice for Black people.”

Again: never mind whether Biden is right or wrong. What does he do, what does he say, what is the deal on the streets, if Trump gets four more years? Will they accept Biden-style calls for restraint? Or is the wider movement too far gone, too hooked on the idea that oppression justifies radical change?

The conservative author Rod Dreher last week tweeted a screen-shot of an online town hall meeting organised by the Northwestern University Law faculty. At the meeting each white faculty member at this hugely prestigious centre of American intellectual excellence begins with a self-denunciation. “I’m Jim Speta. And I am a racist,” the interim dean of the School says in the meeting chat thread leaked to Dreher. “My name is Emily Mullin. I am a racist and a gatekeeper of white supremacy. I will work to be better,” wrote another distinguished legal scholar. What might Emily Mullin’s work look like in the aftermath of a Trump victory?

When a political movement has gone so far as to instigate self-denouncing sessions, how could it accept victory by an opponent whose win can only be evidence of white supremacy? And will it be acceptable for white people who regard themselves as progressive to keep off the streets or to support the police as they try to protect the mainly poor people whose livelihoods go up in smoke when rioters come to town?

In 2016, plenty of people who hated his guts and feared greatly for the future of America, and believed that Hillary Clinton had been traduced and that the Russians had helped the Republicans, nonetheless said words to the effect of “Trump won the electoral college but not the popular vote but that is our system and I am sticking to it.”

That could be a “problematic” view in the event of a Trump victory this year. The word resistance, used loosely during the last four years, may take on a sharper and more dangerous meaning.