The motive of Ms. Cox’s killer will become clearer in the weeks to come. But it shouldn’t take the death of a politician to alert us to the dangers of the politics of hate.They have in mind statements like this one this one from Nigel Farage of the anti-imigrant party UKIP:
If people feel they’ve lost control completely — and we have lost control of our borders completely, as members of the European Union — if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.Which causes moderate establishmentarians to recoil in horror. They point at Cox's assassination and say, "See?"
Over this looms fear of humanity's dark side. There are certain emotions, some people feel, so dangerous that the first duty of political leadership is to never invoke them. Contemplating Trump's angry response to the Orlando shooting, Timothy Egan fretted over "how the civil ties that bind a nation of people from all nations could be shredded."
I have been thinking about this over the past few months, trying to sort out what separates anarchists and followers of Trump from the rest of America. When people call Trump a dangerous demagogue, are they just recoiling from ideas they disagree with? Or is there a deeper division here that cuts across the conventional boundaries of politics, between people who care and worry about social peace and people who see the status quo as an oppressive monolith to be smashed?
Are there people who genuinely fear any idea that might foment anger and hatred, whether they agree with it or not? There must be something of this, since many people dread conflict of any sort, but how important is this sense in political terms? Trump, alas, is not a good test case. Some of the Republicans who refuse to support him may be put off by his angry demagogy, but maybe others worry about putting such an incurious egomaniac in charge of the government, or just find him a tasteless boor.
So I wonder. I have always thought of a strong desire for social peace and order, along with worry that they might be destroyed, as a key part of the conservative mindset. This is what I mean when I say that I find many contemporary Republicans to be anything but conservative. To me, a desire to smash the system, to "burn it to ashes," is the opposite of conservatism. But is it perhaps inevitable that some conservatives would respond that way to too much change coming too fast?
Could it be that the most important thing making for a successful state is a majority that thinks the status quo, whatever its flaws, is worth protecting from radicals? That a democracy can tolerate any opinion except the opinion that some issues are more important than the democracy itself? Is moderate horror at people like Trump and Farage justified defense of a system that is both worth defending and vulnerable to destruction through hateful rage? Or is it just bourgeois fuddy-duddyness, the political equivalent of panicking over swine flu? Or, in a more sinister vein, a way to keep certain ideas (like opposition to immigration) from being discussed at all?
I am myself an establishmentarian fan of order, dubious that any revolutionary change would improve things enough to justify the price in turmoil and chaos. But even I find some of the things people have said about Trump and UKIP to be over-the-top ridiculous. If the survival of European civilization is threatened by Brexit, then European civilization is in a pathetic state. The boy who cried wolf comes to mind.
Our civilization is robust; Hitler and Stalin between them failed to bring it down, and Trump and Farage are not likely to manage it. But our public discourse can certainly be better or worse, our politics more productive or less so. I think our leaders have a duty to work for comity rather than ratchet up the rancor, so I will never myself support angry crusaders. I am not, though, ready to say that political anger is always wrong, or to try to silence the voices of rage.