Something new has emerged in North American politics since Donald Trump first ran for president in 2016: political violence that seems to come out of nowhere, but is triggered by rhetoric from specific persons and groups.
Canadians are as much at risk from it as Americans. We’re just slower to recognize it. Meanwhile the people demonized by such rhetoric feel very visible, whether they’re political figures like U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, who was attacked last month in his San Francisco home, or people speaking a language other than English in a supermarket, or immunocompromised persons wearing masks.
Threats of violence, and violence itself, have been nothing new in American political discourse. Violence made slavery possible. Violence also punished critics of slavery, long before the U.S. Civil War — even on the floor of the U.S. Senate. And after the Civil War, violence evolved into outright domestic terrorism in the southern states, robbing emancipated Black Americans of their new freedom.
This violence, like that against Indigenous peoples, was half-acknowledged — too bad, price of progress — but the agents of violence were clearly acting on behalf of a specific political community. It was never confronted as a key support for the supremacy of white Americans over their non-white fellow-citizens.
So my generation was scandalized in 1969 when H. Rap Brown declared that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” Even today, the stock American response after every mass shooting or school massacre is “this isn’t us.” But of course it is.
Violence has finally acquired a bad name, especially when used for political reasons. That makes it terrorism, after all, political violence instigated by known persons or groups. That makes them lawbreakers, subject to dire penalties. No political party wants to be associated with terrorism.
But since 2016 the American far right has developed a notable new way to inflict violence without being punished for it. “Stochastic” means “randomly determined, unpredictable,” and stochastic terrorism is violence inspired by demonizing persons or groups.
The demonizers don’t rely on their own organized storm troopers, like the Nazis’ Brown Shirts. That would only harm the brand. Now the rhetoric goes out over mainstream and social media as rage farming. The rage, in turn, stems from reports that trigger disgust by describing political adversaries as pedophiles, or as the obedient servants of billionaire conspirators.
Like David DePape’s sudden arrival in the Pelosi house at 2:30 a.m., the violence then arrives unexpectedly. It seems to be the gift of some random unknown individual, a lone wolf. It might come from a group like the Proud Boys or the Three Percenters, but they too are sympathizers of the demonizers, not employees.
The demonizers who enrage such people take no responsibility. Instead, they claim they’re just exercising their right to free speech. That gives them a chance to confuse matters even more by spreading jokes and disinformation about the violent event.
Stochastic terrorism is far more sophisticated than the old Ku Klux Klan variety. The attackers and their instigators are invisible until the attack.
It doesn’t have to go as far as physical violence. Their assailants may scream at their targets in the checkout line, or hang out at political events in combat gear, including assault rifles. Or show up en masse at school board meetings to abuse school officials. Or send abusive and threatening tweets and emails to female health-care workers. But the attackers are not directly linked to the demonizers.
Not a ‘both-sides’ issue
Stochastic terrorism is likely to continue and intensify in the U.S. It will not be a “both-sides” problem; it will be run overwhelmingly by right-wing politicians and their followers, aimed at alienated people who have been systematically disinformed for years. The relatively poor showing by the Republicans in the midterm elections will mean more attacks on the Democrats who beat them — as well as on election officials and civil servants, and likely on health-care workers too.
Something similar is likely to happen in Canada. In a sense, it already has: the so-called “freedom” convoy and the border blockades last winter were staged by people who’d swallowed misinformation about vaccination, mask mandates and the nature of Canadian government itself. They got support from Pierre Poilievre, now the leader of the Conservative party, who blames every problem on Justin Trudeau.
Again, the alienated are not a formal part of any party. But they’re out there, waiting to take part in Canadian political discourse by attacking women on social media, or sneering at mask wearers, or sending threats to Canadian politicians. All they need is a trigger: an invitation to get vaccinated, or a tweet praising some MP. Their disinformation and disgust will do the rest.
‘Seven separate death threats’
In a recent article, NDP MP Charlie Angus of the Timmins-James Bay riding in Ontario describes how he and his family have become the targets of countless threats and intimidation.
“This year alone,” he writes, “I have logged seven separate death threats, some by phone, some online. There were two phone threats against my wife and daughters. As I write this, I am preparing for another court date with a man from my riding who has been calling in a number of threats.” Angus argues that he’s not unique: “And the kind of threats I get as an older white male politician are nothing compared to the abuse, menace and hate faced by young women politicians or any public figure from a racialized background.”
Politicians can demand and get protection. They can call the cops — or, in extreme cases, the military. But as we saw in Ottawa last winter, and as the Americans have seen over and over again, police and military personnel may sympathize more with the alienated than with ordinary citizens and politicians.
When stochastic terrorism is directed against ordinary people, then, the authorities may be slow to respond. Attacks on election officials, health-care workers, teachers and librarians, are hard to defend against except by shutting up, resigning or even moving away.
So it’s going to take at least a few brave and determined people to respond to the threats — not only by going to the police, but also by filing lawsuits. This is where unions and professional associations will be needed, backing up their members with legal clout few individuals could afford. Bankrupting or jailing a few threateners would deter many of the rest. Failure to counterattack would only encourage them.
The instigators are pragmatists. They’ll quit demonizing when it stops paying off, and start looking for another way to overthrow democracy. And they’ll find it — if we don’t resist them at every step.