The Answer to Extremism Isn’t More Extremism
America’s left and right are radicalizing each other, and the precedents from overseas are deeply unsettling.
As one of the ugliest and most divisive American presidential campaigns in our history coasts to its finish, President Donald Trump’s defenders are making their closing arguments. Some of them assert that they like Trump’s policies; his ethical violations or his abuses of his office for personal gain don’t bother them. These views come from deep conviction, and at this point, they can’t be changed.
But another argument that appears over and over again in these closing statements demands a response. It is often made by educated conservatives, people who know that the Trump administration and its incompetence have allowed the coronavirus to devastate America. They also know that Trump has left America weaker and less influential around the world. They even dislike Trump’s vulgarity and his cruelty; they just wish he would stop tweeting. Nevertheless, they will vote for him because the alternative—the left, the Democrats, the socialists, the “woke warriors,” whatever epithet you want to use—is so much worse.
There isn’t time, in the few days left in the campaign, to argue about whether these conservatives’ beliefs about the left are correct. The Democrats’ choice of Joe Biden as their candidate seems to me solid proof that the party’s most active supporters—the people who vote in its primaries—wanted a moderate leader. Nothing in Biden’s decades-long record as a public servant indicates that he is a communist, a radical, or anything other than a small-l liberal. The same is true of the people around him. The big changes that he does want—including taxes on the very wealthy, universal health care, and major action on climate change—do not seem remotely extreme to me either, but that’s an argument for another time.
For at this stage, no one can convince the educated conservatives that any of this is the case. Instead, I’d rather acknowledge that some of the things they fear are real. Yes, it is true: We do live in a moment of rising political hysteria. Far-left groups do knock down statues, not just of Confederate leaders but of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Some self-styled “antifa” activists do seem more interested in smashing shop windows than in peaceful protest. Dangerous intellectual fashions are sweeping through some American universities—the humanities departments of the elite ones in particular. Some radical students and professors do try to restrict what others can teach, think, and say. Left-wing Twitter mobs do attack people who have deviated from their party line, trying not just to silence them but to get them fired. A few months ago, I signed a group letter deploring the growing censoriousness in our culture: “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” A part of the left—admittedly the part most addicted to social media—reacted to this letter with what can only be described as censoriousness, intolerance, and a determination to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
But anyone who is truly worried by these tendencies should fear the consequences of a second Trump administration even more. Anyone who actually cares about academic freedom, or the future of objective reporting, or the ideas behind the statues built to honor American democrats in the country’s public squares, must hope that Trump loses. If he wins a second term, extremism on the left will not be stopped. It will not grow quieter. Instead, extremism will spread, mutate into new forms, and gradually become entrenched in more areas of American life.
Radicalism of all kinds will spread, on the right as well as the left, because America will find itself deeply enmeshed in the same kind of death spiral that the country experienced in the 1850s, a form of negative politics that the British political scientist Roger Eatwell has called “cumulative extremism.” Eatwell described this phenomenon in an article about northern England in 2001, a moment when groups of radicalized white British men physically clashed with groups of radicalized British Muslims. At that time, there were deep economic, religious, and sociological sources for the violence. People in the far right felt themselves to be outside of politics, alienated from the Labour Party that most had once supported. The neighborhoods where both groups lived were poor and getting poorer.
But the mutual anger also acquired its own logic and its own momentum. The perception of anti-Muslim prejudice pushed some Muslims toward radical preachers. The radical preachers provoked an anti-Muslim backlash. Extreme language on one side led to extreme language on the other. Organized violence on one side led to organized violence on the other. Both would blame the other for accelerating the dynamic, but in fact the process of radicalization was mutually reinforcing. Milder, more moderate members of both communities began to choose sides. Being a bystander got harder; remaining neutral became impossible. Nor was this remotely unusual. “People tend to become violent, or to sympathize with violence, if they feel an existential threat,” Eatwell told me recently. They also become more extreme, he said, when they feel their political opponents are not just wrong, but evil—“almost the devil.”
Cumulative extremism often occurs in places where physical space is contested—for example, when more than one community claims a particular neighborhood. In the 1960s and ’70s, the cycle of radicalism in Northern Ireland accelerated in part because of Catholic marches into Protestant “territory” and Protestant marches that offended Catholics. Clashes led to violence, and then violence normalized more violence. Cumulative extremism was also fueled by imitation. The two sides copied each other’s tactics, use of language, and use of media. Bad policing was also part of the story because it led many people to lose faith in the neutrality of the British state.
That loss of faith then led, in turn, to a greater acceptance of violence and eventually to the same phenomenon that Eatwell observed. People who had been only slightly interested in politics were drawn in. The numbers of centrists shrank. In both communities, terrorists found safe harbor among ordinary working people who, in the past, had never considered themselves radical.
But as it turns out, symbolic struggles can be just as polarizing as physical ones. All of the angst at American universities over “platforming,” over who is and is not allowed to speak from a lectern, comes from a very similar kind of dispute. The gangs of students who have shouted down speakers or sought to prevent them from appearing on their campuses are behaving in a ritualized manner that would be familiar to the inhabitants of Belfast. They are acting out the street fights that erupt in other cities, with petitions or social-media campaigns and organized hissing and booing taking the place of physical contests—though sometimes they turn into physical contests as well.
In the online spaces as well as the broadcast ether where American political contests take place, Trump has entered into these symbolic battles like a gang leader striding onto enemy turf. Like Reverend Ian Paisley, who happily played the role of Northern Irish Protestant bigot for decades, Trump embraces a cartoon version of the right—one that repulses centrists, including the center right, and pushes the left to even greater extremes. If you were already inclined to believe that American history is a story of oppression and racial hatred, then the ascent of the birtherist-in-chief, a man who advocates cruelty toward immigrant children, is only going to reinforce your views. If you were already inclined to believe that street violence is required to affect public opinion, then the political dominance of a man who nods and winks at far-right militias is going to solidify your beliefs. As the writer Cathy Young has argued, “when the President of the United States is practically a woke caricature of the evil white male—an entitled bully, who endorses police brutality, bashes minorities and flaunts his lack of human empathy—it pushes large numbers of people farther and farther to the left, lending credibility to the woke idea that America is a racist patriarchy.”
Trump has squeezed moderates out of his party. If he wins reelection, the result will be to squeeze moderates out of American politics altogether. I hope that educated conservatives think hard about what will happen if Biden’s moderate-left campaign fails: It is extremely unlikely that its adherents and spokespeople will shrug their shoulders and decide that, yes, Trump is right after all. They are much more likely to move further to the extremes. Americans will witness the radicalization of the Democratic Party, as well as the radicalization of the powerful and influential intellectual, academic, and cultural left, in a manner that we have never before seen. A parallel process will take place on the other side of the political spectrum—one that has started already—as right-wing militias, white supremacists, and QAnon cultists are reenergized by the reelection of someone whom they have long considered to be their defender.
Unfortunately, history offers very few happy endings to that kind of story. In the past, cumulative extremism has usually subsided in one of two ways. It can culminate in a full-scale civil war that one side or the other wins—which is what happened in the U.S. in the 1860s. Alternatively, it can end thanks to the emergence of moderate forces on both sides, often with the aid of outsiders, who take the political momentum away from the extremists. That’s a part of what happened in Northern Ireland, and in the British towns Eatwell described.
Americans don’t have outsiders who will help us get out of this death spiral. All we have is the power to vote.