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.
J.M. Berger: Our consensus reality has shattered
Modern America doesn’t have many physical contests for space. Americans, with a few exceptions, generally have enough land to enjoy the luxury of distance from people we really don’t like. There are some exceptions: A self-described member of Rose City Antifa, based in Portland, Oregon—he was wearing a mask when interviewed—told a journalist last summer that “when fascists come to our cities to attack people, we are going to
put our bodies between fascists and the people they want to attack.” This sentiment could easily have come from the Irish Republican Army. A vigilante videographer in Idaho, who had read internet rumors that antifa groups were coming to his town, sounded much the same: “If you guys are thinking of coming to Coeur D’Alene, to riot or loot, you’d better think again. Because we ain’t having it in our town.”
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.”