“The New Anarchy”––In The Atlantic’s Cover Story, Adrienne LaFrance Reports That America Is Facing an Extremist Violence It Does Not Know How to Stop

The Atlantic's April 2023 Cover

In “The New Anarchy,” a sweeping new cover story for the April issue of The Atlantic, executive editor Adrienne LaFrance draws upon years of reporting to argue that America is experiencing an era of increased acts of violence intended to achieve political goals, whether driven by ideological vision or by delusions and hatred.

Examples can be drawn from the headlines on almost any day: the January 6 storming of the Capitol. A paramilitary group’s plans to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. A man in body armor trying to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office. The attack on Paul Pelosi in his home in San Francisco. A failed Republican candidate for state office in New Mexico arrested for the alleged attempted murder of local Democratic officials in four separate shootings.

What America faces now, LaFrance writes, can best be understood as “a new phase of domestic terror, one characterized by radicalized individuals with shape-shifting ideologies willing to kill their political enemies. Unchecked, it promises an era of slow-motion anarchy.” Today’s political violence, LaFrance observes, is fueled by something new and dangerous: National leaders, as we see in an entire political party, are complicit in the violence and seek to harness it for their own ends.

With all of the historical conditions that breed political violence present in our era, LaFrance’s cover story asks: How can America survive this period of mass delusion, deep division, and political violence without seeing the permanent dissolution of the ties that bind us? For the answer, LaFrance looked overseas, and across history—including to 1970s Italy and the anarchist movement in early-20th-century America—and found lessons for our nation that are both deeply complicated and crucially important. She warns that the conditions that make a society vulnerable to political violence are complex but well established:

“Highly visible wealth disparity, declining trust in democratic institutions, a perceived sense of victimhood, intense partisan estrangement based on identity, rapid demographic change, flourishing conspiracy theories, violent and dehumanizing rhetoric against the ‘other,’ a sharply divided electorate, and a belief among those who flirt with violence that they can get away with it. All of those conditions were present at the turn of the last century. All of them are present today.” During such eras, LaFrance writes, “societies tend to ignore the obvious warning signs of endemic political violence until the situation is beyond containment, and violence takes on a life of its own.”

In contemporary America, one place where political violence became an everyday reality is Portland, Oregon, with its recent long period of clashes among anti-police protesters, right-wing counterprotesters, and the police. Reporting from the city, LaFrance interviews Portland’s mayor and goes on to write: “The situation in Portland became so desperate, and the ideologies involved so tangled, that the violence began to operate like its own weather system—a phenomenon that the majority of Portlanders could see coming and avoid, but one that left behind tremendous destruction. Most people don’t want to fight. But it takes startlingly few violent individuals to exact generational damage.”

The decisions that we as a society make today will determine everything tomorrow. LaFrance concludes: “Someday, historians will look back at this moment and tell one of two stories: The first is a story of how democracy and reason prevailed. The second is a story of how minds grew fevered and blood was spilled in the twilight of a great experiment that did not have to end the way it did.

The New Anarchy” builds upon LaFrance’s past work for The Atlantic, including “The Prophecies of Q,” from June 2020, which demonstrated how American conspiracy theories were entering a dangerous new chapter. Both articles join The Atlantic’s ongoing, broad coverage on the rise of extremism and the worsening democratic crisis, which LaFrance also collected in a reader’s guide for the magazine in January 2022, and which includes the essential reporting of Anne Applebaum, Barton Gellman, George Packer, Adam Serwer, and a range of other Atlantic writers and contributors who have investigated the growing threats to global democracy in recent years.

Press Contacts:
Paul Jackson and Anna Bross | The Atlantic