Why violent resistance doesn’t work, even when it works

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One thing that the US Capital attack on 1/6 can help teach us is why “diversity of tactics” (a euphemism for campaigns that embrace both violence and non-violence, where convenient) is both bad and dumb.

I first encountered the concept of “diversity of tactics” among white anarchist kids during the anti-corporate-globalization movement. There, the debate was largely about whether property destruction is violence at all. Unlike the recent attacks on the US Capitol, nobody was planning things like kidnapping or murder. Still, “diversity of tactics” stood for the idea that it was tactically optimal to have some level of mayhem and destruction in the mix (for some reason), and that those who advocated strict non-violence were basically weak, soft sell-outs. And probably traitors.

The situation with Trump’s autogolpe movement has a much wider range of “diversity of tactics” in view than that movement did. It looks like a significant number of the US Capitol attackers were prepared to both kidnap and murder US officials, and would have done so if Trump’s signal to that effect had been any clearer.

Instead, Trump apparently wanted mayhem and terror, but also a veneer of plausible deniability. I have little doubt that Trump would’ve urged supporters to engage in kidnappings, or in forcing Congress at gunpoint to certify a Trump win, if he’d thought it would succeed. But from where he sits, something just a tad more subtle seems to be in view.

According to Trump officials who spoke to New York Magazine, this is what Trump was apparently doing while it unfolded:

He apparently wanted some classy gents to just rough up Congress for him.

So back to “diversity of tactics.” As Erica Chenoweth found and articulated in “Why Civil Resistance Works,” violent movements have a lot of problems. Among them is the fact that they stoke powerful resistance, and cause a large share of the population to abandon them. Effective mass movements for positive change need popular support.

Here in the US, we’re viscerally feeling how that actually works right now. It is far, far, far easier to have fantasies about the efficacy of violence than it is to effectively wield violence to achieve political ends. The fantasy of violence is usually deeply disconnected from reality, and both Trump and his followers seem to be indulging a confusing mixture of violent fantasies. I think that these violent fantasies lie at the very core of the Q-Trump movement’s deep disconnection from reality. Outside of the realm of fantasy, real violence and abuse have powerful dissociative effects in both perpetrators and victims. The relationship between violence and disconnection from reality runs extremely deep in our physiology and psyches.

Beyond coups and civil resistance and related movements, where accepting or embracing violence is often transparently one of the most stupid and self-destructive things a movement could possibly do, I think there’s a deeper logic that plays out in normal politics as well. Violence produces backlash, often violent, and undermines trust. This creates serious problems in domestic and international politics. More abusive and violent governments create less flourishing societies that are more disconnected from reality. They also become pariahs among nations, or end up in brutal and wasteful wars with other violent nations. Violent projects, even when they succeed in taking over a nation, routinely fail in the longer run. I think this is because they contain the seeds of their own destruction, even in their violent “successes.”

But beyond that, you have lots of easy cases like the Capitol attack. The “diversity of tactics” in Trump’s insane movement have quickly become the most powerful source of its undoing so far. It isn’t going to vanish, and we’ll probably be dealing with a violent, insurrectionist, radical right for a while now in this country. This is what they’ve been building into ever since the Civil Rights Movement non-violently defeated Jim Crow. The results will be self-destructive and self-defeating. Hopefully, they won’t “succeed” and manage to take the entire United States in a more self-destructive and self-defeating direction with them. That is, unfortunately, still a live possibility. They’re unlikely to win this battle, and they won’t win the war. But they’re going to do as much damage as they can on the way down.

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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