Kathy Griffin’s recent ISIS-like outrage against President Trump justly sparked condemnations from both the Left and the Right, despite her subsequent attempts to transform herself from aggressor to martyr. Sadly, such a violent statement is simply par for the course these days.
Yet if Trump really is the tyrannical fascist the Left believes him to be, then why should they not want to kill him? Sic semper tyrannis! Indeed, the American revolutionaries often declared that “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” But using violence as an appeal to heaven is a last resort, a sign we have reached the utmost limits of toleration. After that, only war can decide the issue.
Our Constitution was designed to afford extensive toleration for disagreement and to insist that we settle our disagreements through argument and persuasion rather than through force. Only once before in American history has a significant portion of the population decided they could not tolerate the political ascendency of those with whom they disagreed, and—giving up on the Constitution to settle their differences—they made their appeal to heaven.
How are we to know if we are approaching such a tipping point to toleration today? This is a vital question.
It’s Dangerous to Force Others’ Assent
In the autumn of 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the Cooper Union Institution in New York City. Lincoln explained how the argument over slavery was reaching a tipping point at which the slaveholding interest would no longer tolerate opposition. The slaveholders could not endure, Lincoln explained, the differing opinions of the opposition. No, the opposition must “cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right.” Which is to say, the opposition must cease to exist altogether.
It is often said that Trump has divided our nation. I disagree. There is no denying, of course, that Trump is often vulgar, but he is not alone in deserving that criticism. Trump’s boldness has instead revealed divisions that have been simmering for a long time but remained under the surface mostly because of bipartisan cowardice and imprudent choices to punt on divisive issues and force future generations to settle the disputes.
At least now the cards are down. It is clear that we are not arguing, at bottom, about different means to the same ends. We do not even agree about what the ends should be. For example, the real argument is not about what may be the most prudent way to deal with the large population of illegal immigrants living and possibly voting in our country. The argument is about whether citizens of any country have the right to say who can become a fellow citizen. The disagreement is so sharp because it is a disagreement about justice itself.
To put the issue in Lincoln’s terms, now the Left insists Americans only tolerate illegal immigration, but cease to call open borders wrong and join its proponents in calling it right. We must cease to call abortion wrong and join the Left in calling it right. And so on with economic issues, health issues, social and moral issues. The extreme popularity of Trump’s successful war on political correctness now makes more sense.
How This Connects to the War Against Free Speech
All of this intolerance has been building toward the war against freedom of speech. Within the last year, we have witnessed several notable demonstrations of the Left’s refusal to tolerate the existence of differing opinions. Such refusal is a rejection of the constitutional structure of our politics, a refusal to play by the rules to which we all agreed. These examples of “principled” moral stands rest on the claim that the other side’s opinions are simply beyond the pale.
In other words, one would rather risk death in mortal combat than exercise patience and argumentation within the strictures of our rulebook, the Constitution. Such a stance only makes sense if one believes—like the slaveholders and extreme abolitionists did of the Lincolnian Republicans—that the opposition represents an existential threat that politics cannot resolve. Such a stance only makes sense if one has completely lost faith in the Constitution. If people no longer believe that ballots are a sufficient substitute for bullets, then violence is the logical consequence.
As an example, for 44 years now the pro-life movement has, with relatively few exceptions, peacefully tolerated the dominance of an opinion it finds monstrous, yet its supporters have not given up on the political system. They have sought to persuade public opinion through grassroots organization, and have made considerable advances. Although a few extremists among them have given up on hoping for change through argument and have resorted to force, most pro-lifers still believe enough in the power of reason and the political process the Constitution provides.
How to Prevent the Cold Civil War From Becoming Hot
The question on the table today is whether the Left as a whole will continue to abide by the rulebook and rely on the political process—which includes a guarantee of free speech—or try through nefarious means to destroy opposing opinions with force. The former is a choice for the Constitution; the latter—let us speak candidly—is the beginnings of a declaration of war.
We have seen a number of dramatic articles written recently with threateningly martial themes, and not without cause. Angelo Codevilla has called our current circumstances a “Cold Civil War” due to the palpable decrease in toleration on both the Left and Right. According to Codevilla, there are two ways to prevent that cold war from becoming hot, and we must pursue both of them.
First, we must “relearn federalism” as a way of practicing toleration. We should permit as much diversity of opinion expressed in law as possible within the 50 republics encompassed within our federal nation, so long as one or a few states do not endanger the rest. Second, we must restore “a coherent, persuasive idea of the common good… to the public mind.”
A few issues affect every state equally, immigration and national defense upmost among them. Social justice warriors should focus on trying to effect change by persuading the people in their own states with arguments, not with fists or calling for bringing the full weight of the national government to bear on things like “bathroom justice.” If anyone is more to blame than others for threatening our nation, it is those who have given up on the power of argument to persuade and have resorted to force.
An ancient definition of a political community is a people who share a common opinion about justice. There must be a minimum amount of agreement among all citizens in a republic, or it will devolve into civil war. Upon such a slight agreement can be built a form of political friendship. Friends can talk with and persuade one another, but without friendship, only force and fraud will prevail.
Since the founding of the United States, Americans have shared a commitment to justice understood as compliance with the Constitution in light of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Within those limits, we can and should argue as much as we like. If we do not retain, however, even this minimum commitment to justice, trust can never be rebuilt and political friendship will continue to degenerate into enmity. If that happens, we should not be surprised by gradually increasing violence justified on the basis of devotion to some supposedly higher justice, whether that be something like the “justice” of racial supremacy or of universalist humanitarianism.