The term violence has achieved an amusing new cultural cachet in the age of Twitter. “He woke up and chose violence” prepares us to hear a funny insult, see a tantrum or otherwise witness an act that may seem wrong, but rarely more bloody than funny. (For instance, I just saw a tweet saying that someone “chose violence” by putting ranch dressing and corn on a hot dog, which does indeed feel like some sort of violation.) Perhaps this usage evolves naturally from a treatment of the term violence in campus and activist culture that leverages it as a metaphor: Silence is violence. Also speech is violence. Many will argue that, on the left at least, we have taken the concept of violence and stretched it to the point of enabling social hysteria. But metaphors are fine. It is the real violence we have chosen as a result of our willingness to deceive ourselves about the social and empirical realities in which we live that is the problem. And this phenomenon is bipartisan.
The long year of 2020 ended on 6 January 2021. It ended in a wave of chaos and literal violence that erupted against the symbolic heart of American democracy. It did so in the form of angry protestors who had been convinced by people they trusted that the most important election of their lives had just been stolen from them.
President Trump and many (though not all) of his usual allies made empirical claims with respect to the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The overall argument was that the election had been stolen by fraud. The individual claims that made up this argument were numerous. Many were also immediately falsifiable. Trump’s claim that Detroit had “more votes than people” and GOP congressional candidate Russ Ramsland’s assertion that nineteen areas in Michigan had vote totals of over 100% were quickly dispelled when it was noticed that the source for these assertions was data pulled from voting tallies for the state of Minnesota, not Michigan. On 23 November Trump tweeted “DOMINION [voting machines] DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES NATIONWIDE. DATA ANALYSIS FINDS 221,000 PENNSYLVANIA VOTES SWITCHED FROM PRESIDENT TRUMP TO BIDEN.” It turned out that the source of this claim was reporting by the Trump-supporting One America News Network, which itself claimed to be relying on research from a firm called Edison Research—which immediately denied having produced any such findings, saying that in fact it had zero evidence of mass fraud.
So much has been written demonstrating the falsehood of the various claims of election fraud emanating from powerful Republicans related to the 2020 election that it would be redundant for me to add to the pile. And while it is certainly true that there are particular claims that are not falsifiable, and therefore technically within the realm of possibility (we can never really know for certain, for example, how many people may have successfully returned mail-in ballots sent to the wrong address), claims that are not falsifiable are not certifiable either. Yet President Trump did not advance the claim that the election was stolen from him as a possibility, or even (though this would have also been a hard position to defend) a probability. The most powerful elected leader in the United States claimed that he had been defrauded of the presidency “by a lot” as an absolute certainty to his tens of millions of devoted—and justifiably incensed—supporters.
“Now it is up to congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy,” Trump declared to 200,000 Americans rallying by his side before sending them to march in protest on Capitol Hill. The moment would quickly devolve into arguably the most disgraceful spectacle in American history.
In fairness to those gathered for Trump’s rally that day, only a very small fraction participated in the violence that erupted on Capitol Hill. They were no more representative of the larger body of Trump-supporting protestors than the small number of rioters who set American cities on fire in the summer of protest following the death of George Floyd were representative of Black Lives Matter.
And there are other key similarities.
The death of George Floyd was a singular event, but it seemed to confirm an empirical impression shared by a large percentage of Americans (and an overwhelming majority of African-Americans)—namely, that police killings of unarmed black men are rampantly disproportionate and racially motivated.
However, this impression is a statistical mirage. It is true that African-Americans constitute 35% of Americans shot by police and only 13% of the population. But violent crime rates are far higher among black Americans than among other groups. Even so, according to the Washington Post fewer than 1,000 people in total were killed by police across all of America in 2019. Of that number, only 55 were unarmed.
In a country of 350 million people this is a small figure and it has been falling each year since the mid 1990s. The problem of police killings of unarmed African-Americans was dramatically improving at precisely the moment when some people chose to rise up in violence in response to the impression that black life was becoming cheaper in America.
Unlike Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, leading figures in the Democratic Party and within the left-leaning institutions did not usually make precise empirical claims about rates of unjust police killings of African-Americans. Rather, outraged activists and ordinary Americans assumed that the familiar claims were true: leading Democratic politicians and media figures—from Joe Biden to your favourite anchor on CNN—acted as if the impression of disproportionate and increasing police killings of black Americans was correct. In doing so, they amplified the outrage and drew attention to related issues of racial justice without ever correcting the core misunderstanding—and ignored the vilification of those who did.
Whereas the American right has tended to lean into explicit falsehoods, the American left seems more likely to tolerate implicit misdirection. But this particular sin of omission resulted in mass protests in the streets during a pandemic, billions of dollars of property damage, the destruction of countless businesses, injuries to protestors and police officers alike, and the deaths of two dozen people in the minority of instances in which protests turned to violence.
In modern American political life, we do not intentionally choose violence. We are not yet at the point of having paramilitary forces under the command of politicians roaming freely in American streets, whatever one’s concerns may be about Antifa or the Proud Boys. We choose violence through deceit, both explicit and implicit. More specifically, we choose violence by misleading each other about the sorts of issues that cause us to think of one another as enemies—perhaps even mortal enemies.
How can we blame people for turning to violence when they believe that the peaceful mechanisms of democracy are being stolen from them by the very politicians who represent them? How can we blame people for turning to violence when they believe that innocents are being gunned down in vast numbers by the very police officers whose duty it is to protect them?
Those who recognize that each of these narratives is a deception may nevertheless resist this juxtaposition. One might offend you more than the other. One might seem more excusable than the other. Yes, you might say, police killings of unarmed black men were exaggerated; but there is still a problem with systemic racism in the criminal justice system that can’t be ignored. Yes, maybe Trump lost the election, you might say; but with all of the electoral changes that took place in response to COVID-19, and after all of the lies of the mainstream media, it makes sense to call for greater scrutiny of the outcome.
For the sake of argument, let us grant that either, or both, of these greater truths are true. What places the narratives they justify into a shared category is that they each show us the bloody consequences of lies that demonize, and of demonization that distorts empirical reality. We may console ourselves with the notion that they serve a useful function as metaphorical truths. But the violence they lead to is all too literal.