‘Trumpism Is the Last Gasp of a Dying Culture of White Supremacy’

Readers respond to our April 2023 cover story and more.

A photo-realistic mockup of the Atlantic magazine open to the story "The New Anarchy"
The Atlantic

The New Anarchy

America faces a type of extremist violence it does not know how to stop, Adrienne LaFrance wrote in the April 2023 issue.

Adrienne LaFrance acknowledges that political violence can have a legitimate place in a democratic society, noting that “America was born in revolution.” But if King George’s excessive taxes in the 1760s and ’70s presented a just cause for rebellion against the state, why wouldn’t the more than 1,000 extrajudicial killings of American citizens by police in 2022? If we are to treat political violence as the serious problem that it is, we’ll need to know when, if ever, it is legitimate.

Keaton Powers
Laredo, Texas

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LaFrance is correct to identify universal access to guns, a fragmented media environment, and the refusal of extreme MAGA Republicans to accept defeat in elections as new challenges to America’s social fabric. But these factors exist in the wider context of a shift in the racial and ethnic composition of the United States—and thus a shift in the country’s power relations. The best point of reference for understanding the rise of violence in the U.S. today is not the anarchist movement or Italy’s Years of Lead, but rather the much deeper crisis of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In this historic transformation, the balance of power between races shifted, and the country witnessed violence far worse than what we face today.

The current wave of Trumpist reaction is rooted, I think, in an inchoate fear of a demographic shift that will make white people a minority. The Trump movement is a defensive last gasp of a dying culture of white supremacy.

Mark Robert Schneider
Weymouth, Mass.

The dark shadow of Trumpism and its violence casts a pall over LaFrance’s article. Yet LaFrance deliberately chooses not to frame her discussion around the specific threat posed by right-wing extremist groups or MAGA Republicans and their attacks on democracy. Although she is right to identify a “dynamic of action and reaction” between right-wing and left-wing extremists, her both-sides-ism goes too far.

LaFrance concludes that ending political violence will require “facing down those who use the language of democracy to weaken democratic systems.” It is obvious that in American politics today, there is only one movement and one party that these words describe: MAGA Republicanism. The clear implication of “The New Anarchy” is that ending political violence now means decisively defeating the Republican Party. I wish LaFrance had forthrightly said this.

Jeffrey C. Isaac
Bloomington, Ind.

Adrienne LaFrance replies:

Thank you to everyone who read my story. I chose the periods of violence I examined not because they offer simple solutions for exiting these dangerous times—if only!—but because they carry serious warnings that I believe Americans must heed. It would be too facile to say that perpetrators of violence should be held accountable—of course that is the case. But history demonstrates again and again that in periods of political violence, government overreach poses a grave danger. The unconstitutional Palmer Raids may have quashed anarchist violence in the 1920s, for instance, but at a cost that is far too steep ever to be repeated. I am deeply worried about what will happen to Americans’ civil liberties if political violence continues to worsen.

As I wrote, there is no question that Trumpism is a cauldron for right-wing extremism, which is the primary driver of political violence in America today. More alarming still is the GOP’s continued obsequiousness to Donald Trump—in essence, political violence is now explicitly endorsed by the state. But it is not enough to simply point at this threat, say who is responsible, and expect that doing so will make it go away. This is why I focused on how right-wing extremists have succeeded in provoking violent reactions from their political foes. This is an extraordinarily dangerous dynamic that fuels propaganda and disinformation, masks who is primarily responsible, exacerbates state violence, and accelerates decivilization and democratic backsliding. Finally, Mark Robert Schneider is absolutely right to point out the underlying racism that animates so many right-wing extremists. This is why I mentioned the post-Reconstruction campaign perversely known as Redemption and called it an urgent warning: Sometimes political violence ends not because it has been defeated, but because it has achieved its aims.

The Moral Case Against Euphemism

Banning words won’t make the world more just, George Packer argued in the April 2023 issue.

I think George Packer overestimates the influence of institutional language, which is meant to be as broad, inoffensive, and inclusive as possible in order to appeal to wide and varied audiences—and, by extension, draw in more donors, shareholders, and investors. No one is insisting that you stop calling yourself a “pregnant woman” if you feel that applies to you—colloquial, everyday language will always be different from professional or institutional language.

There are, however, ongoing, state-backed attempts to censor words and even entire academic disciplines—but Packer neglects those. Compared with the horrifying power of censorship at the legislative level, Packer’s complaints about institutional style guides fall flat.

Christina Tavella
Boston, Mass.

As a civil-rights attorney, I take issue with the kind of performative progressivism at the heart of the equity-language conversation. Equity language often works as a way for progressives to placate their discomfort with their own privilege while not doing anything substantive about it.

But cultural shifts in language aren’t always insidious or performative, and sometimes they can be legitimately beneficial. Packer’s passing mention of gender-inclusive language fails to note that it is both fairly easy to implement and exceedingly meaningful for trans and gender-nonconforming people. I am a cisgender female, but I present more androgynously. When I see pronouns included in people’s email signatures or gender-neutral language (they as opposed to he/she) used in official documents, I feel that I can express myself honestly in my workplace. I’m more engaged, more outgoing, and more passionate when I can be myself. These subtle shifts in language are deeply meaningful to me.

Mackenzie Karbon
Washington, D.C.

George Packer replies:

It’s true that institutional equity-language guides are written for narrow audiences, but they aren’t hermetically sealed from the larger culture. They all rely, as I described, on the recommendations of “experts” whose influence extends deep into the mainstream, including media organizations. Their usage spreads because no well-intentioned person wants to be caught on the wrong side of a banned word. Otherwise, unnatural terms like Latinx and justice-involved person would remain the private language of a small priesthood.

The language of gender would have needed an entire article of its own, with a different analysis. Stating pronouns can indeed be more inclusive—except when it’s required, which becomes a new form of exclusion of those who don’t accept the current ideology of gender. I didn’t write about state legislative bans on books and ideas, because that’s also another subject—one that has been much, and deservedly, criticized in The Atlantic and elsewhere. I did conclude my story with a reference to right-wing language orthodoxy, and I hope to expand on it in another story. My purpose in this one was to point out how the spread of a quasi-official, imprecise, euphemistic, jargon-ridden, ever-changing vocabulary in the name of social justice actually makes it harder to see and remedy injustice. Anyone who cares about justice shouldn’t be too quick to change the subject.

Behind the Cover

In this month’s cover story, “The Counteroffensive,” Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg report on the stakes of Ukraine’s battle to expel Russia from its territory. Visiting the front lines and discussing the war’s endgame with President Volodymyr Zelensky, they consider what a Ukrainian victory might mean for democracies around the world. Our cover features original art and hand lettering by the musician Bono.

Oliver Munday, Associate Creative Director

This article appears in the June 2023 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”