“Someone, or something,” as Agent Mulder might say, set fire to North Carolina’s Orange County GOP headquarters one weekend in mid-October, with only a few weeks left in a contentious election. According to news reports, a bottle of flammable liquid was thrown through the window, and a nearby building was spray painted, telling the Republican “Nazis” to leave town. The same night, miles away, the Democratic party headquarters was also tagged, “Death to Capitalism”. No one was hurt.
It’s not obvious who is responsible: as of the time of writing, the only arrest made in connection has been a man in a clown mask, seen stealing from an ATM in a review of security footage. If it were an inside job, it would certainly not be the first time: a McCain volunteer scratched a letter B into her own face and faked an attack by supporters of Barack Obama not long before the 2008 election, and there is no shortage of cases in which white people have vandalized their own property and blamed the Black Lives Matter movement. But despite the lack of a clear culprit, liberals have been quick to find scapegoats, worry themselves to ulceration about the fallout, and even materially support a political discrimination machine. One typical perspective comes from IndyWeek editor Jeffrey Billman, who writes: “Dear Orange County GOP HQ Firebombers: You’re Not Helping.”
There is certainly an intuitive appeal to the idea that arson like this is unhelpful or even counterproductive. Such conclusions may well be sustained in a longer analysis, but this article doesn’t follow through beyond admonition. Only a single underwhelming sentence ties the facts reported together to support the central claim:
“This incident gives Trump die-hards license to say that both sides do it .”
When held up to the light, this remark raises more questions than it attempts to answer.
Do they not already have that license?
It would seem this is a sunk cost at this point. All manner of rowdy behavior has ALREADY transpired from opponents of the Trump campaign and Hillary campaigns, from an Indiana GOP HQ torched the week before the one in North Carolina, to flags burnt outside the DNC and RNC, to miscellaneous randos punching randos during a California campaign stop, to attacks on anti-Trump protesters in Greensboro. Each time, there has been much moaning and groaning about the negative impacts on the Democrats’ campaign and “the cause” in general, but there has been little evidence of any significant impact, let alone a game-changing one, and each time the short term memory of the news cycle has shuffled on to other things.
This isn’t unique to this election; the same process takes place whenever action is taken beyond the permitted, well-marshaled street march. If anything, this incident is interesting in that many of the usual criticisms – the direct endangerment of other activists without their consent, the choice of politically tangential or irrelevant targets – don’t apply.
Why would a lack of license stop them? When has it?
The bizarre beliefs and violent behavior of many Trump supporters, especially ‘die-hards’, has been widely reported; is there any reason to believe that, in the absence of such an incident in consensus reality, they wouldn’t latch upon one or more of the exotic zoo of conspiracy theories which could be similarly used? For that matter, would anyone who employed such a flimsy pretext to assassinate a politician, need any pretext at all? What licence did they have or need early in the campaign when they repeatedly and violently assaulted peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters?
Who is this this Trump supporter speaking to?
A Democrat who supported Hillary in the 2008 and 2016 primaries, and will for the foreseeable future? Another Trump supporter? Themselves, trying so sleep at night? The poor schmuck who has to share a bus ride with the guy? Jeffrey Billman himself presumably does not accept such an argument, so why does he expect the hypothetical audience to do so?
What are the consequences of this speech?
What would happen if someone accepted this rationale? We’ve already questioned its relationship with interpersonal violence, such as assassination or poll-booth vigilantism (1 & 2). But there is also often an anxiety that some audacious act of direct action, used as a rhetorical weapon by one’s opponents, will turn people’s minds and behaviors against some “cause”. How often does this actually happen? In a simple exchange in the public square, whose mind is this going to sway? On Facebook and or on the bus, how often do you hear people say “I was going to vote for Hillary, but then I heard about (some aggressive direct action instance) and now I’m not so sure”? Many people seem to believe that someone else will do this, but how often does it actually happen?
What is ‘it’?
The hypothetical Trumpling draws one, maybe two shaky equivalences in gathering different acts under a single umbrella called violence:
-> property damage is equated with personal injury: melted campaign signs are put on the same footing as a bullet in the head.
-> the violence of the oppressed is equated with the violence of the oppressor: assault perpetrated by a marginalized person against enablers of persecution and deportation (as in San Jose this summer) is put on the same footing as racial profiling by self-appointed poll booth monitors.
Even if such equivalences even hold in this case, Jeffrey Billman hasn’t demonstrated it. In letting the point slide without a fight, he is doing the Trump supporter’s work for him, making himself and the rest of us vulnerable to sporadic false flags and antics of bored teenagers, both par for the political and social course.
I don’t encourage people to just wander around setting fire to things. I don’t spend my time that way, certainly. But it’s far from clear that any damage done to progressive causes is non-negligible, or even that it exists at all. On the other hand, the $13k donation of which the author writes approvingly quite plausibly made things worse.
From a results-oriented, strategic standpoint, the first-order material consequences of the donation drive seem obvious. This was not a residence, a dance hall, or a hospital that was damaged; its purpose was not to grow tomatoes like a greenhouse, house children like an orphanage, or display art like a museum. It was the headquarters of a regressive political party. Their presidential candidate threatens literal fascism and their local representatives have their own headache-inducing resume. NC Republicans brought us House Bill Two and Amendment One; they are willing to twist data science to overtly racist ends when it helps them keep minorities from voting but they try to outlaw climatology when it comes to sea level rise. Their offices have one function, and that is to produce and enact such social engineering. When their infrastructure suffers damage, their ability to disenfranchise black voters declines, however minutely. If yard signs didn’t bring in votes, politicians wouldn’t employ them; when such signs are destroyed and must be replaced, the vote efficiency per dollar spent goes down, however infinitesimally. When files are destroyed, informational and organizational havoc is wrought. Maybe this doesn’t justify arson (and maybe it does; Billman certainly devotes no time to weighing the ethics). But that’s beside the point, which is the sad fact that, with cost of repairs is covered, they’re left with more resources on hand to slander transwomen.
There are plenty of things such a perspective might be called: callous, cynical, the justification of means or lack thereof by their ends. Yet many of the prominent donors themselves have gone on record, saying that now is no time for anything but! Several have written at length, echoing popular arguments against third party voting (Clay Shirky is a high-profile example). And yet every charge levied against the act of voting for Jill Stein or Monica Moorehead, describes the donation drive at least as well!
- It’s a waste of resources (even before the devastation of Hurricane Matthew there were oodles of cash-starved organizations in NC doing good work, and buying booze for winos would frankly have been a more worthy cause)
- The donors are acting out of a position of privilege (I wish I was affluent enough to throw in $100 for a pity party benefiting people who hate my guts!)
- It is emotionalistic, performative and self-righteous (this is half the credit the author gives to the donation drive: it “made us feel a little bit better about the world”, whoever “us” is)
- it is hopelessly idealistic and lacking in realism (by acting magnanimous, they expect to coax decency out of people who clearly have no interest in it).
Material support for a bass-ackwards political organization is at least as bad as failure to support its most viable competitor! Moreover, if we take seriously the idea that perceived hypocrisy changes minds for the worse (if property damage somehow rationalized violence in the word or thought of Trump’s brownshirt wannabes, in the author’s example), how does such selective pragmatism look to someone who was previously sold against voting idealistically? With the disingenuity of arguments against doing so laid bare, how many people will reconsider a vote for a third party instead of Clinton? Billman concedes that the donation was only useful as PR, but it’s far from obvious whether it accomplished even that, and could well have made things worse!
In the course of appealing to centrists and conservatives, Clinton has sought and often gained the endorsement of establishment conservatives, from former president and Iran Contra alum George Herbert Walker Bush, to conspiracy peddler Glenn Beck, to think tanker Roger Kagan. In the process, their role in bringing our current electoral crisis to pass has gotten glossed over. The strategic utility of this move isn’t obvious: its a waste of a unique opportunity to render radioactive the vehicle of US conservativism for election cycles to come. DNC staffers themselves have expressed concern that by casting Trump’s horrorshow as an aberration of the Republican party rather than its natural conclusion, they were distancing down-ballot Republicans from their unpopular presidential candidate and undercutting their Democratic competitors. It is this atmosphere which has brought us a popular logo of a rainbow flag hugging a confederate flag, and a popular photo of Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush. Clearly, liberals will forgive anyone…
…except for Ralph Nader. But if one really must give sympathy to the devil, why not send something less fungible and less liquid than money? What about a greeting card, or maybe the ever-popular “thoughts and prayers” ?
You can forgive Darth Vader for blowing up Alderaan, without chipping in to build him a new Death Star!
(Writing by Mayko; Arson images by Alex Boerner)