[NOTE: I do not support assassination. Aside from the fact that I personally am a wimp and a coward, I believe that political change will be more durable and legitimate if it is seen to emerge from within the existing political system. The purpose of this post is purely analytical. Ultimately, it’s about trying to account for mass shootings as a phenomenon.]
We are constantly told that our nation is more divided than it has ever been. That’s obviously bullshit. Leaving aside the Civil War — in which our nation was so divided that people literally lined up with rifles to murder each other by the thousands — the turn of the 20th century was marked by labor militancy and left-wing agitation, and the 1960s were a period of mass protest and reactionary violence that far overshadows the present day.
One symptom of that deeper conflict was the prevalence of assassination as a political tool. In the tense years following the Civil War, when full citizenship for former slaves threatened the racial order, Abraham Lincoln was only the highest official to succumb to the assassin’s bullet. At the turn of the century, President William McKinley’s murder was part of a global wave of anarchist assassinations of world leaders. And even if the motivations for the assassination of JFK were idiosyncratic to his killer, the motives that led to the killing Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King within a few short years were much more widely shared among the American public.
From the standpoint of the assassins themselves, the results were mixed. I’m not sure of the effects of McKinley’s assassination in detail (though this book by Eric Rauchway looks fascinating), but if anything the death of JKF led to the more forceful implementation of his agenda by his successor, LBJ. By contrast, the death of Lincoln obviously set back Reconstruction significantly, and the late-60s assassinations certainly corresponded with a loss of momentum on Civil Rights.
One striking feature of these high-profile assassinations is that they were carried out by self-selecting individuals. Conspiracy theories aside, none seem to have been part of an organized political strategy by a larger group. Lincoln’s assassination had the predictable side-effect of handing power over to the Democrat Andrew Johnson, but Democrats did not arrange for him to be killed. Indeed, some of these shootings or attempts seem to have been motivated by purely personal animus (the killing of James Garfield) or else by insanity (the wounding of Ronald Reagan). In other words, we could count them as a kind of stochastic violence that is legible as a response to various social anxieties and conflicts but not planned or directly predictable.
And from that perspective, I think we would be justified in looking back at recent decades and asking why there were so few high-profile assassinations. By most measures, the last three presidents were among the most hated in recent history. George W. Bush was the tyrant who lied us into a needless war while trampling on our rights. Barack Obama’s sheer existence clearly traumatized a substantial plurality of white Americans, including his successor, Donald Trump, who was widely viewed as a foreign agent and traitor and now figures as a major threat to US democracy. And for good measure, Joe Biden is viewed as an illegitimate usurper by a disturbingly large portion of the public. Yes, there have been death threats and some abortive attempts, but to my knowledge none that actually led to injury or the serious possibility of injury.
Maybe presidential security is a solved problem. If so, I commend the good work of the Secret Service. But there are many similarly divisive public figures without such high-quality security, and most — though not all — remain similarly unscathed. There are of course tragic exceptions, and though the media stokes up fears of the infamous antifa and other left-wing violence, most actual death and injury comes from the right. In 2011, Gabby Giffords was shot, presumably for her views on gun control. Activists in Ferguson have been killed by police under mysterious circumstances. Protestors are run down by cars, sometimes with the explicit legal imprimatur of the state legislature.
Perhaps this imbalance comes about because the right is more prone to fantasize about killing its opponents, but the urgency of left-wing rhetoric on some issues seems like it could reach the point of inspiring stochastic violence. There are currently three Supreme Court justices whose seats are widely viewed as stolen, who seem set to radically restrict our rights. There are bank CEOs who virtually destroyed the world economy and came out stronger than ever. There are oil executives who are knowingly dooming future generations to flood, famine, and fatal heatwaves. You’d think that the emotions roiled by these concerns — which have the benefit of actually being real, unlike the sex-trafficking ring Hillary Clinton was supposedly running in a pizza parlor, for example — would eventually inspire some nutjob to take matters into his own hands. But no.
I would venture two possible explanations for this. The first is that the left in the US has embraced non-violent resistance. Direct action, even against fully insured private property, is viewed as impermissible and even counter-productive by most of the people who are disposed to show up to protests. Even the brave people who take it upon themselves to protect protestors from being beaten up by the police and right-wing counterprotestors are regarded with some embarrassment, because any violence from “our side” is taken to discredit the cause.
These dogmas continue to hold despite the abject failure of any non-violent protest movement to achieve any significant goal within living memory — and despite the objective absence of the conditions that MLK-style non-violence presupposed (a sympathetic and halfway honest media, the existence of principled officials who could be shamed into taking moral actions, etc.). The biggest protest in world history up to that time not only failed to stop the Iraq War, it was touted by Bush as evidence that the Iraq War was justified — after all, we are trying to bring the Iraqis the same rights you are exercising! And the even bigger and more widespread protest that followed Trump’s inauguration didn’t bother to make a demand, even the symbolic demand for Trump’s resignation. Violent nutjobs are not likely to by nurtured in the context of such ritualized performances.
In a way, the relative paucity of assassinations from the right requires even more explanation. After all, they are the ones with all the guns, and their media is a non-stop spigot of paranoid rage. And yes, there has been political violence from the right, most notably the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan and the Capitol riots. But I would like to venture a perhaps counterintuitive thesis here, which is that the mass shooting has effectively replaced the political assassination as the preferred contemporary mode of stochastic violence.
This shift stems in part from the emergence of mass shootings as a meme-ified social media performance, giving the trend a kind of inner momentum that can be partly decoupled from any specific political tensions. For the radically alienated men prone to violently act out, mass shootings become a kind of ritual form or established genre that they can use to make a name for themselves. (For more details on this disturbing trend, see Julie Webber’s fascinating book, Beyond Columbine.)
But I would suggest something deeper is at work, something connected with the inner dynamics of the neoliberal order. As I constantly point out, most notably in Neoliberalism’s Demons, neoliberalism legitimates itself by offloading responsibility for systemic deficiencies onto individual choices. Climate change is happening because we aren’t changing our habits or buying the right environmentally friendly products. Political change isn’t happening because we individually aren’t voting enthusiastically enough. The pandemic is continuing due to selfish anti-vaxxers. Meanwhile, the people with institutional power, especially in the corporate realm, are simply responding to inescapable impersonal market forces — they could not behave otherwise. With this inversion of agency and responsibility for systemic problems, it is perhaps understandable how, in place of a president or CEO, the unhinged lone wolf should turn the assassin’s bullet against the general public, punishing a representative sample of “us” for “our” role in societal decay.