Yesterday, Sen. Chuck Schumer addressed a pro-abortion rally in front of the Supreme Court Building. The Court was hearing a case concerning a Louisiana law requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The rally was meant to exhibit public support for judging the law an unconstitutional violation of Roe v. Wade.
Schumer’s speech included incendiary words:
I want to tell you, Gorsuch. I want to tell you, Kavanaugh. You have released a whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.
As Ed Whelan notes, abortion is an issue that inflames passions, and no doubt Schumer meant to exploit those passions. But the rhetoric of direct threat is noteworthy. “You will pay the price.” “You won’t know what hit you.” Is Schumer implying physical assault? Assassination? Or does he merely mean to wave the threat of impeachment, should Democrats attain sufficient power on Capitol Hill?
I am struck by the double standard. The media constantly warns us about the supposed threat of right-wing violence, carefully monitoring conservatives and condemning them whenever their rhetoric seems to encourage “extremism.”
Yet politically motivated street violence in the United States comes almost entirely from leftist antifa gangs, which are not criticized and in most cases not prosecuted. And incendiary words such as Schumer’s receive no rebukes from liberals.
The double standard has real-world consequences. An antifa gang of hundreds rampaged through Washington during Trump’s inauguration. Many were arrested. None were convicted. Portland, Oregon, sees regular antifa attacks. Some have been arrested and convicted, but in general police give these gangs wide berth as they destroy property and intimidate whomever they deem worthy targets. Antifa gangs have shut down speakers at University of California, Berkeley. By contrast, when a disturbed Des Moines man burnt the rainbow flag he stole from a nearby Methodist Church, he received a one-year sentence for reckless use of fire and an additional 15 years for committing a hate crime.
Our current situation is not unlike the situation in Pakistan. Although nominally against the law, Muslim attacks on Christians are tolerated, and in some instances encouraged. It’s easy to imagine something analogous happening at Yale or Harvard. Student groups can harass and intimidate, as long as they are deemed progressive. But if one or two students were to burn a rainbow flag, there would be an outcry, and they would be immediately expelled.
Every society maintains a boundary between what is clean and what is polluted, what is permitted and what is taboo. This is the boundary where civility stops and fierce resistance to that which defiles begins.
Our society is distinct in the way that the progressive left has politicized this boundary, using it as a powerful partisan tool. The right, in this scheme, is unclean. It is a polluting force. Strenuous efforts to eradicate its influence may tend toward “unfortunate” extremes. But establishment liberals excuse the excesses, which is why the antifa can riot with relative impunity and undergraduates can hurl obscenities at faculty and threaten to get them fired without suffering any disciplinary consequences.
Schumer’s words of implicit violence have precedent. In 2018, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib notoriously said of her class of newly elected Democrats, “We’re gonna impeach the motherf*****!” Establishment liberals raised no objections. I believe Tlaib could have said, “We’re gonna assassinate the motherf*****!” and suffered nothing more than perfunctory censure. There is no serious censure partly because of social media, which has created a video game atmosphere of verbal political violence that makes it hard to tell the virtual from the real. But there is also no censure because, in truth, our liberal establishment is not averse to the use of threats and intimidation—and even violence—in defense of its causes.
It is often said that conservatives, especially social conservatives, “drive polarization.” This is a willful reversal of the truth. Today, the forces of violence and intimidation are primarily on the left. Huey Long, a Louisiana populist, often had charges of fascism hurled at him by establishment liberals. He observed the irony of the attacks, noting, “When Fascism comes to America, it will come under the guise of anti-Fascism.”
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.