The Dangers of Mutual Radicalization

by Sidney Tarrow

Soon after the election of Donald Trump, a wave of protest bubbled up against the new president and his policies. Beginning with the “Women’s March,” followed by protests on behalf of gun control and against the threat of climate change, and led by new groups like Indivisible and old ones like the ACLU, the movement reached into the legal profession when Trump, soon after entering the White House, abruptly  announced a painful and chaotic ban on refugees and others from several majority-Muslim countries (as described by Michael Dorf and Michael Chu here). When the #MeToo and Never Again movements emerged, it began to seem as if American civil society was rising up in a body against the excesses and outrages of the new administration.

Academics and activists soon collected these varied movements under the rubric of “The Resistance,” but as David Meyer and I argued in our recent book, The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement, that label may say too much and too little. It may say too much because it assumes that the varied protest movements are a coherent whole, and it may say too little because it fails to examine the challenges that the Resistance poses to its supporters. 

Three of these challenges are the most important: first, the proliferation of activist sites and new groups has led to a failure to identify an overarching policy goal – apart from the proximate one of opposing Trump; second, there is a gap  between those who want to defend our institutions against the president and his enablers and those who want to tear down the institutions that facilitated his rise; and, third, there is the danger of mutual radicalization. As was revealed in the conflict that erupted over the Kavanaugh nomination, the third is the most pressing, and could easily weaken The Resistance.

As the midterm elections approach, the Republicans are ramping up this threat. On October 11th, Jamiles Lartey published an article in The Guardian entitled “Republican Attacks Take Aim at Non-White Congressional Candidates.” Both in California (in the congressional campaign of Ammar Campa-Najjar, who has both Latino and Palestinian roots) and in New York (in the campaign of African-American Antonio Delgado) the GOP attacked these two Democrats with scarcely-disguised racist attacks. The California Democrat was savaged for being a “security threat,” because of his family’s supposed “ties to terrorism,” while Delgado was attacked over the lyrics of a rap song he made in 2006 which did not – so the ad claimed – “reflect our lifestyle and values.”

Racist attacks are nothing new coming from the American right, and it may well be that they reflect the desperation of the GOP as it faces major losses in the mid-term  races. The real danger is that such vicious attacks from the cellar of the American right will trigger a spiral of mutual radicalization if candidates like Campa-Najjar and Delgado, who are running in traditionally Republican, largely-white districts, lose their races. A spiral of left/right radicalization of rhetoric – and possibly tactics – can only redound to the benefit of the Trumpist right.

Already, after the savage infighting over the Kavanaugh nomination,  Trump and his enablers described the protesters against his nomination as “a mob,” shrewdly shifting the debate from the nominee’s failings to the actions of his opponents – both in Congress and without. At rallies since the vote, Trump ramped up the rhetoric, attacking both Dr. Ford and the Democrats who supported her claims.

History shows that in such spirals of radicalization, the Right holds more cards than the Left, which can more easily be condemned for the actions and the rhetoric of its extremist fringe. Remember the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign, after the mid-1960s riots and the emergence of the Weathermen from the largely-peaceful SDS? Though a plurality of the American public had grave doubts about the Vietnam War, Nixon’s “silent majority” strategy was highly effective in winning the election.

What can be done? Cooperation can be encouraged between the new groups that emerged after the 2016 election and more seasoned-campaigners like MoveOn and the ACLU. Valence issues like gun control and (now) the Affordable Care Act can appeal to a broad constituency, as opposed to those that divide the left from more moderate groups. And in areas of the country and levels of government like New York and California, policy initiatives that unite the opposition can be put forward.

This is not a plea to turn the other cheek; on the contrary, the legal community should call out every threat to the rule of law coming from Trump or his enablers. But while forcing Senator Ted Cruz to leave a Washington restaurant or removing support from senatorial candidate Phil Bredesen in Tennessee because he supported Kavanaugh  may satisfy outraged liberals, such gestures carry water to the Trumpian well. The legal profession must understand that the ultimate danger of the Trump regime is not this or that policy initiative or tweeted outrage from the president, but his threat to the very survival of democracy.