The tension seems to grow by the day. Anyone who steps into the limelight of media exposure is subject to death threats. Anyone who happens to be in a store or workplace when an “active shooter” begins to fire his semi-automatic combat weapon may die without the slightest sense of why. A teenager at a house party may fall victim to a drive-by shooter. Those are just two facts that reflect the American culture of violence. Characterizing America as a peaceful nation just does not comport well with the facts.
One of the most striking but underreported ‘artifacts’ of the COVID-19 pandemic is the surge of gun purchases nationwide. According to a local expert, the most popular gun-selling sporting goods store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has had empty shelves for months. The price of ammunition has more than doubled, if available at all. Of course, you cannot shoot a virus. So, what gives?
Why would the global spread of a dangerous virus spur so many to buy guns? This particular economic anomaly reflects a much deeper cultural malady. With the economic disruptions caused by this threat to public health, many Americans react with fear of the other, particularly in light of the politicization of whether to comply with federal public health recommendations. Why do basic public health measures foment extreme political conflict?
Roots of the Culture of Violence
We can understand the American way of violence only if we reflect on how this nation came to be. It is not just that the colonies took up arms in revolt against the oppressive policies of King George. The colonization of the North American continent by diverse groups of European immigrants and settlers was distinctly violent from the very beginning. It would take a whole book just to describe briefly all the ways that the American nation expanded from the thirteen colonies by violent conquest and genocide.
The western expansion of the U.S. was nothing if not genocidal. The official acceptance of slavery as an economic system inherently legitimized violence against a multiple nations of people designated as less than human. The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution authorized local militias and ownership of guns by white citizens in order to legitimize hunting down and killing escaped slaves. According to the results of a simple google search, the United States of American has engaged in some form of war for most of the years it has existed.
As the mass media emerged, from radio to movies to television and then social media, the most common topic of stories was and is violence. Heroes consistently take matters into their own hands, and deploy handguns, in exercising “vigilante justice” under the assumption that the authorities are just not up to the job in some way.
Assassinations of presidents, political leaders, or advocates for civil rights, reflect the feelings of folks whose sense of social and economic dominance is threatened. Reaction to the demands for human rights by those kept at or near the bottom of the American hierarchy of social/ethnic/racial groups, is expressed in violent ways. The white-nationalist and racist insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021 saw themselves as ‘patriots,’ seeking to re-establish their nativist vision of a “Real America” that would exclude people of color.
Punitive Politics of Authoritarian Elites
One peculiarity of the American culture of hierarchy is that we tend to blame the victims of the actions of authoritarian elites. Suppression of wages, destruction of unions, and the exigencies of consequent poverty and economic failure are cast as personal defects of the personalities of the most vulnerable people in American society. The rise of authoritarian politics involves evermore punitive legislation and the demonization and scapegoating of ethnic/racial minorities and the poor.
Obsession with punishment is a key component of the culture of violence. If we benefit from personal, economic, and social power, we can justify our privilege by denigrating and punishing those less fortunate. Those who have lost such power blame the most vulnerable, enabled by the political demagogues. Self-righteousness avoids the guilt that would result from recognizing that we are no more deserving than are the victims of our or someone else’s power. The United States of America maintains a larger population of prisoners than any other country in the world. The police and criminal justice system are the agents of our punitive culture.
At the same time, the concentration of power among the super-rich and the largest corporations has led to the loss of economic security and status of large numbers of white middle class Americans. These resentful folks are most vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. Even those who have not suffered economic loss due to the concentration of wealth among the super-rich and giant corporations, often feel threatened by the demographic changes that contradict their view that America is a “White Christian Nation.” They resent the growing population of the non-European immigrants and native Blacks who are willing to do the work and make the sacrifices that most whites consider beneath them.
Confusing Conservatism with Authoritarian White Racist Nationalism
Conservatism used to mean support for sustaining the traditional institutions and practices of the nation. Of course, slavery was a traditional institution until the civil war. Never mind that such patterns had flaws and victims. Conservatives held to certain principles. Think William F. Buckley and more recently David Brooks, the New York Times columnist. Conservatism has a lot to do with stability and order, if not always the most equitable order possible.
Today, “conservative” is the label applied to the defenders of the increasingly hierarchical order of concentrated wealth and political power. Yet, it is also applied to the growing class of political and social malcontents who both resent the power elites and are manipulated by them to turn their anger and resentment against the most vulnerable classes in the nation.
This strange, though historically not unique alliance of elites and their victims has produced a growing neo-fascist trend in politics, which is leading to more and more political violence. This trend emerged explicitly in the political violence of the armed insurrection of white nationalists who stormed the nation’s capital on January 6, 2021.
Significant numbers of Republican senators and representatives in Congress aided and abetted the insurrectionists in implicit if not overt coordination with the former president who incited the assault on the capital that day. Of course, he had engaged in similar incitement to violence during and since the 2016 presidential campaign. The Republican extremist politicians slavishly follow what they believe to be their voter “base,” fearing that if they don’t that they will be “primaried” out of their jobs. These trends reflect both the broader American Way of Violence and a growing movement of nativist fascist white-supremacist nationalism that is very much like the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Violence is an integral part of fascism. The threat to American democracy inherent in this trend is very real and entails a level of chaos and disorder that should appall any traditional conservative.