Adrienne LaFrance on “The New Anarchy”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Now, as Secretary Mayorkas told me earlier, the DHS has evolved to focus on a range of issues. In the last few years, it designated domestic violent extremism as a national priority. Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of “The Atlantic,” traces political violence here in the United States over the past century in her latest article. And she now joins Walter Isaacson to discuss what is different about the new anarchy.


WALTER ISAACSON, HOST: Thank you, Christiane. And, Adrienne LaFrance, welcome to the show.


ISAACSON: So, you’ve got this cover story in “The Atlantic,” “The New Anarchy.” And one reason you say it’s new is that it’s a little bit slow motion. What do you mean by slow motion? Does that make it better or worse?

LAFRANCE: You know, I think both would be bad, frankly. I think one of the themes in my reporting is that people have a tendency to expect political violence to manifest, maybe in the form of civil war. Obviously, the civil war looms really large in our national memory. And what I’m arguing and what I’m concerned about is that really bad political violence is already here and it’s just not taking the form we’re used to. And so, you know, you might be able to compartmentalize one event as random when, in fact, it’s part of a larger pattern.

ISAACSON: Well, a lot of them do seem random. I mean, we have, you know, what happened in Portland on both sides, but we also have the attack on Paul Pelosi or Justice Kavanaugh, it seems like kind of misfits and weird people doing things. Why do you say it’s all connected?

LAFRANCE: So, I think the one way to think about it, and this is a term that law enforcement uses, is salad bar extremism. So, there is emerging pattern of rather than a cohesive ideology where you have a political party or an organized group carrying out acts of violence, which you do see in history that that sometimes have political violence manifest itself. Now, we have these sort of lose sometimes overlapping ideologies, sometimes driven by hate, sometimes seemingly random, certainly carried out by people of different profiles or beliefs or, you know, affiliations, political affiliations. But the larger pattern is you see — increased threats against the public, against members of Congress, against journalists. And the pace of violence is increasing as well. And so, to look at it as an existing culture, you really have to see that it’s part of this larger sort of trend that’s going on.

ISAACSON: You start to piece in Portland, Oregon in 2020 when all of those things on both sides were happening. Tell me what sparked that and what are the people who are making up that political violence there?

LAFRANCE: I was interested in Portland because it did seem, from afar, to have gotten really bad. And I was looking for the contemporary example of a sort of how close we’ve gotten sort of to the brink or to breaking the social contract. And I also was down to Portland because there is so much, it seemed, disconnect among people in terms of who was responsible for what was going on there, in this sort of street violence, ongoing fighting. And what I found was — I mean, you mentioned the term both sides, I think there was violence across many different groups, but we have to be really careful about weighing it equally, right? And so, the sort of fascinating and different dynamic that played out in Portland was, well, two things, one was that a lot of people sort of assumed that this all just came out of sort of the protests related to the murder of George Floyd. In fact, the violence that played out in Portland was brewing for many years and really started after Trump’s election, when you had right-wing provocateurs coming out and sort of ostentatiously, you know, trying to provoke a lot of the left-wing people in Portland, and they did so effectively. And so, then you had left-wing folks who were prone to violence as well coming out and fighting. And then, the police in the fray as well. And so, you really had — in some ways, you had three contingencies between the police, the left-wing extremists and right-wing extremists. And I think when you talk to a lot of Portlanders, most Portlanders didn’t go out in the streets fighting and most would say that all those who did made a bad choice to do so.

ISAACSON: Well, one of the themes in your piece, which goes back a century is anarchy and anarchists. What do you mean by anarchists?

LAFRANCE: Well, looking a century ago, I mean, if you look at the early 20th century in the United States, anarchists were, you know, antigovernment, anti-state, maybe communist, Marxists, like actual like anarchy as a political viewpoint. And when I talk about this — the new anarchy, I’m not — I don’t mean an ideology as much as a new form of radicalism that, interestingly, takes the shape of some of the left-wing radicalism of a century ago while being ideologically more likely to be right-wing. And so — and I think this is an important point, back to your question about the both sides-ism, is when you talk to the scholars who focus most on political violence today, the data shows again and again that the biggest threat, it comes from the right-wing. We certainly have incidents of political violence carried out by people who espouse left-wing beliefs. But the anarchy today is not traditional anarchy as it was 100 years ago because that was ideologically different.

ISAACSON: But what about the anti-fascist protests there’s that — you know, certainly people who point to them as the ones who were originally in the streets?

LAFRANCE: Right. And some anti-fascists do self-identify as anarchists in the sort of classical sense. You know, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that they were originally in the streets. If you go back to sort of the root of this fight, you see — in Portland anyway, you see people from the right-wing provocateurs coming, protesting and that drying out the left- wing response.

ISAACSON: When I was a young reporter covering things down here in Louisiana for “The Times” Pick Union (ph), I was covering various Ku Klux Klan and other groups, weird groups, and they would stand on the corner and hand out mimeograph sheets. And so, they were sort of self-contained. It couldn’t spread too much. How did these groups use social media and the internet now to spread differently?

LAFRANCE: Right. Just the very architecture of the social web is designed for a massive, instantaneous global scale. Meaning, you know, if you put your beliefs in front of the right audience or in the right Facebook group or the right Telegram channel, whatever the distribution mechanism is, it can instantly reach just a massive number of people everywhere. And so, that’s different, right? You know, you’re not out on the street corner and handing out something — a physical piece of paper. And the geographic desegregation, I think, is important too because it means that it is not contained to just one town or one place. And so, the threat is suddenly everywhere potentially. And so, you can kind of think of these platforms at their worst as being sort of anger machines that are sort of this feedback loop of hateful content, spread at a global scale and instantaneously and reinforcing some of the worst possible human impulses.

ISAACSON: Let me read a sentence from your piece that really struck me. You said the people build their political identities not around shared values, you’re talking about these days, but around a hatred for their foes. And I think you put the label on it, which is negative partisanship. Is that different now?

LAFRANCE: It is. I mean, the scholars who study this are really disturbed by it too because you might previously — I mean, look. Like we should acknowledge that political violence has been part of American politics since the beginning and there have always been fights. And so — but at the same time, even in past areas of ups and downs of violence, you know, people would hopefully, you know, come together around what their beliefs were. So, asserting — here’s what I believe, here’s what I believe the world should look like. Now, you see more and more people saying, you know, not asserting the policies they believe in or the vision of the world that they want to realize, but more, you know, whatever it takes so that that — the other guy doesn’t get what he wants or — and so — and we’re seeing a really dramatic rise in the way people are oriented politically being solely around hatred for the other or making sure that, you know, whatever it takes to defeat the political opponent rather than realize a vision of the world that someone might otherwise want, politically.

ISAACSON: You say the political violence is like an iceberg. Explain that to me.

LAFRANCE: This was a really helpful visual that a researcher at the University of Maryland Terrorism Database gave to me. And the way she put it was, you know, you have this iceberg. And at the tip, the part that you can see are these awful acts of violence that are actually carried out, you know, whether it’s a mass shooting or a street violence or the attack on Speaker Pelosi’s husband. And so, there’s a smaller group of people who actually are willing to commit acts of violence. But then the rest of the iceberg is the culture in which this becomes more and more permissible. So, you have — and this goes back to the social web, you have the spreading of these ideas at mask global scale and only some people are going to see those ideas and run with them, fortunately. Unfortunately, it only takes very few actors to exert tremendous damage and harm on society. And so, the tip of the iceberg is the violence itself. The rest of the iceberg is the conditions that make it possible.

ISAACSON: You talk about the new anarchists, but you go back 100 years to the old anarchists from around 1910 to 1920, which was a really bad period in the United States. Explain the difference of the old anarchism. What was it all about?

LAFRANCE: So, this was a movement that was sparked in large part — I mean, we’re talking about an era where heads of state were being assassinated by anarchists in the United States. You know, President McKinley, as well as elsewhere. And really, this global movement that was antiestablishment, antigovernment, just sort of the dynamiting, tear it down mentality, true anarchy, in the true sense of the word. And it was motivated by some real issues in society, including terrible working conditions for workers. And so, you know, it’s — we see some of this. If you look throughout history, you do see sort of echoes in the social conditions that prompt people to decide that they don’t want to work within the system to solve systemic, real systemic problems, but rather, want to bring the system down. So, that is certainly what you saw among anarchists in the United States in the early 20th century. And you can see echoes of that among some groups today.

ISAACSON: When you talk about the anarchists of the early 20th century, they were put down around 1919, 1920. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer did famous — infamous in a way, raids. And I think 10,000 people at a time were arrested. But let me read a sentence from your article. You say, sweeping action by law enforcement helped put an end to a generation of anarchist attacks. And then, you say, holding perpetrators accountable is crucial. Do you think we need to be doing more of that now?

LAFRANCE: It gets really uncomfortable, frankly, because, to your point, the Palmer raids were unconstitutional. Like we should definitely not repeat that, it’s a notorious example of an overreaction in law enforcement. At the same time, society had reached a point where, you know, you can’t live with domestic terrorists trying to assassinate political leaders all the time and effect — you know, and actually assassinating them. So, there — a lot of the lessons of earlier eras of political violence lead to very uncomfortable places. We very frequently see that with necessary law enforcement, you have overreach and encroachment of civil liberties. And so, I think the lesson for us today is we absolutely need a strong, swift law enforcement. I think the reaction and the indictments after January 6th they’re an example of what’s needed. But we, at the same time, as citizens have to be really cognizant of the potential for government overreach and corruption in the course of that law enforcement, which is troubling.

ISAACSON: Talking about political violence in general, in order to have it stop or have some crisis, you would have thought we need some big event that was so horrible we’d all say, OK, enough of this. Well, we had that. We had January 6th. What happened?

LAFRANCE: One of the things that I was thinking about as I was reporting this was the Patriot movement of the 1990s. So, you have this militia movement. Your viewers will remember Waco and Ruby Ridge and this sort of surge of militia movement in the early 1990s, and extremist militia movements as well. And I had — in thinking back to that time, I was reflecting on how that sort of went away and maybe there was a lesson for us there. What did we do right in that era that we could replicate today? What someone I interviewed reminded me of was it wasn’t that we did anything right actually, it was at the Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City bombing happened, and that cataclysmic event and the law enforcement that followed is what didn’t make extremism go away but sort of pushed it underground. And so, I think that’s an important point because these movements last for generations, sometimes generations or longer. And so, with regard to January 6th, and even with Trump having lost the election, I think there was an expectation among some people that, sort of, perhaps the fever would break, the — just the tenor of the political — the sort of worsening of political discourse and, obviously, the hope that after January 6th that the nation’s leaders would come together and say this is not acceptable. This is not what we’re about. And you had that me before, I don’t know, 24 or 48 hours. But we’ve seen that Republicans very quickly went back to defending Trump and Trumpism. And so, it’s really — I mean, this is one of the big conclusions of my story is that we need unified leadership in this country against political violence, for leaders of any background and every party to say, this is not acceptable in America.

ISAACSON: You just mentioned Trump and Trumpism as being a cause here. To what extent is that a motivating force behind this rise in political violence?

LAFRANCE: It is absolutely a factor, but the political violence we’re experiencing now predates Trump. So, I think, in some ways, I think that his presidency helped sort of give permission to the mainstreaming of a lot of these extremist views. I mean, people will recall the debate where he said — he addressed to the Proud Boys on national television and said, stand back and stand by. So, you know, perfect example of a mainstream endorsement of political violence. Of course, the stop the steal rhetoric leading up to January 6th is an example. So, I would characterize Trump as an accelerant, but not the root cause.

ISAACSON: So, after looking at more than a century of this type of political violence and looking at what is the same and what’s new about the political violence now, what do you think we as a nation should be doing?

LAFRANCE: The two most distressing things that I come away with are what is new and what’s different, because those are the things that we have to newly account for in trying to address this. And so, I think the social web that we talked about. The other piece, which we talked a little bit about is, we haven’t before, in America, had such a movement of people denying the accurate outcome of elections, and that’s new for us in America and very dangerous. And so, I think, as we think about what we need to do to stop political violence in our country, we need to focus our energies largely on those two new dynamic sort of really dangerous phenomenon. But there’s also sort of what, you know, what I might call like the boring work of democracy, boring but essential, you know, making sure that we are encouraging people who should be in leadership positions to run for office, making sure that we’re protecting free and fair access to elections. And again, going back to the leadership point, demanding that the leadership of this country — not just on a national level but on every level of elected office — that they are people who reject political violence as unacceptable. And that’s certainly not the case right now. And so, you know, one way to think about this is, is if voters in America treated stopping political violence as their sort of single issue, like the most important thing that we can do in a world of many, many, many other important issues, we would ultimately end up demanding, I think, stronger leadership that could help us get through this.

ISAACSON: Adrienne LaFrance, thank you so much for joining us.

LAFRANCE: Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas joins Christiane to discuss immigration. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis explains how his country is being impacted by the Russia-Ukraine war. Adrienne LaFrance, Executive Editor of The Atlantic, discusses her new cover story “The New Anarchy.”