News & Politics

The Cowardice of Calls for Revolutionary Violence

It is not 1776. None of us are George Washington. Barack Obama, horrendous a president as he may be, is not King George. We live in a constitutional democratic republic with due process and plenty of recourse for petitioning our government for redress of grievances. There is no moral or practical justification whatsoever for armed revolution, or for even entertaining the notion. Those who do, those who have alluded to the possibility of violence in the wake of a November 8 where Donald Trump loses to Hillary Clinton, have lapsed into cowardice.

It manifests on a couple of levels. First, it shows in attempts to conceal sincerely held violent desires within half-jokes or hypotheticals. Wednesday, former congressman and current talk radio host Joe Walsh tweeted this:

He later walked the comments back, telling Yahoo News:

I’m not talking about inciting violence. I’m saying, ‘If Trump loses, man, game on, grab your musket. We’re going to protest…’

It’s just a joke, he claims. It’s colorful imagery. Nevermind whether it inflames passions and incites someone to take it seriously.

Along the same lines, the New York Times talked to folks in crowds at Trump rallies across the country and encountered several examples of I’m-not-saying-I’m-just-saying revolutionary talk:

Jared Halbrook, 25, of Green Bay, Wis., said that if Trump lost to Hillary Clinton, which he worried would happen through a stolen election, it could lead to “another Revolutionary War.”

“People are going to march on the capitols,” said Halbrook, who works at a call center. “They’re going to do whatever needs to be done to get her out of office, because she does not belong there.”

[…]

“It’s not what I’m going to do, but I’m scared that the country is going to go into a riot,” said Roger Pillath, 75, a retired teacher from Coleman, Wis. “I’ve never seen the country so divided.”

[…]

“Unfortunately, I’m not a man of vigilante violence,” said Richard Sabonjohn, 48, of Naples, Fla. “But I do think there will be a large amount of people that are terribly upset and may take matters into their own hands.”

These guys aren’t going to riot, they’re quick to claim. But unspecified “people” may, if things go the wrong way on Election Day.

It’s a rhetorical pattern familiar to anyone who has seen a gangster film. Pay for protection, in this case by voting the right way, or the guys quoted above won’t be responsible for the consequences.

Any kind of threat is, generally speaking, a bad thing. But veiled threats like these, the kind people only hint at and won’t stand behind, are cowardly.

The second way in which these displays of revolutionary rhetoric portray cowardice was alluded to at the start. We are not colonists taxed without representation. We have the non-violent means to change the government we live under. We have to approach the task seriously, intelligently, and practically. But that’s hard. Few rise willing to commit. It’s easier, and far less intimidating, to aspire to grandiose confrontation than to deal rationally with the unsexy work of political activism.

In truth, there is not going to be a full-blown violent revolution. There may be a couple of yahoos who pop off and do something stupid. They’ll get caught or killed, and that will be that. Even so, the idea of revolution presents a threat of a different sort. It expands easily into a quasi-plausible fantasy which proves more appealing than working in reality. Succumbing to that fantasy leaves us impotent to effect real change in the real world.

That, perhaps more than the prospect of isolated violence, is the real danger. We shouldn’t talk about grabbing our muskets, metaphorical or otherwise, until we’ve exhausted every non-violent means at our disposal to provide guards for future security. There is more we could each be doing to persuade and inspire our neighbors. We should stop fantasizing about an imaginary armed revolution, as if such a thing were in any way desirable, and plant our feet squarely on the ground where we’re desperately needed.

Want a revolution? Start one within. Revolt against apathy. Revolt against fruitless anger. Revolt against the tendency to take blessings for granted. Resolve instead to be the change we need, to project an image of what the world would be like if the culture adopted our values. In a free society, that’s the only real weapon we have, our influence. Those around us are judging our worldview, including our policy prescriptions, based on how we present it and how we behave. That is why Trump is losing, not because we’ve reached the last recourse in a crumbling republic, but because he’s terrible at this. Any one of us could do this better, and have the opportunity to do so within our own sphere of influence—starting now.