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The New Banality of Evil

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The New Banality of Evil

James Hodgkinson’s murderous rage was fueled by dedication to a mundane progressive agenda. June 15, 2017
Public safety
Politics and law

Alexandria, Virginia shooter James T. Hodgkinson was certainly angry about the direction of the country, but his vision of America was prosaic and predictable—ripped from the pages of the Huffington Post. Branding himself a member of the “99 percent,” he advocated higher taxes on the rich, according to letters he sent to a local newspaper. He opposed the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, wanted Democrats to filibuster the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and supported the proposed Presidential Accountability Act, which extends conflict-of-interest laws for federal officials to the president and vice president, who are currently exempt. In other words, his was not the religious fervor of the jihadist seeking a caliphate, nor did he envision the sweeping historical dialectic of Das Kapital. His ideas weren’t even as dramatic as the cultural revolution imagined by the 1960s’ Yippie manifesto. Yet Hodgkinson was apparently willing to kill for higher marginal tax rates, stricter conflict-of-interest laws, and Obamacare. His was a terrorism constructed out of the narcissism of small differences.

Hodgkinson’s act only seems astonishing if you haven’t been paying attention to politics lately. When Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, he faced an opposition that ranged from virtually all Democrats to a generous collection of Republicans and conservatives. Many of us had already leveled a fair amount of criticism at him for his political ideas (or lack of them) and his temperament. Still, the early Trump presidency has been striking for the hyperbolic rhetoric that has accompanied almost any policy associated with his administration, including mundane ideas that he adopted from others after taking office. Republican efforts to replace the ACA—President Obama’s signature piece of domestic legislation, which is failing—with a modest bill that doesn’t go nearly as far as some wish has been branded by politicians and columnists as an “act of cruelty” likely to cost millions of lives. Those assertions have little grounding in the truth. Meanwhile, even the most modest cuts in Trump’s first budget have sparked comparisons with Ebenezer Scrooge. When, for instance, Trump’s budget director proposed eliminating a decades-old “anti-poverty” program that has never been shown to alleviate poverty, dishes out millions to wealthy communities to build amenities, and shrunk to a mere $3 billion annually under President Obama, critics called the move “devastating” and “an utter disaster,” sure to provoke “a crisis” in communities. That was mild stuff compared to what greeted the confirmation of charter school advocate Betsy DeVos as education secretary, including a tweet from a Vanity Fair editor who claimed her “policies will kill children.”

Hodgkinson apparently took much of this to heart. Though he displayed fits of anger and intolerance in the past, what apparently drove him into a murderous rage late in life was his fear that Trump was undermining progressive gains. To him, that amounted to Trump being a “traitor,” someone the resistance needed to “destroy.” His was an extreme version of the absolutism that has gripped the opposition, which must describe every idea associated with the Trump administration and every individual working in it in apocalyptic terms. This ignores the political reality that Trump’s most radical proposals have little chance of succeeding because of Republican opposition, and that his biggest accomplishments are almost certain to be the kinds of ideological course corrections that occur whenever the president of one party is succeeded by one from the other party.

Hodgkinson’s rage over Trump is even more troubling than the jihadist’s fervor or the anarchist’s nihilism because radicals are in pursuit of something far more transformational and unlikely than what Hodgkinson envisions. To many conservatives, including those who opposed Trump, the message in all of this is that the forces of resistance seem to be aimed not at Trump alone but at every idea that doesn’t fit their narrow agenda. No wonder that even centrist Democrats worry that their party is becoming as extreme—and narcissistic—as some Trumpian elements of the GOP.

Yesterday, as the political class remained fixed to TVs and the Internet, America carried on. Kids got picked up from soccer practice; workers fought their way home through traffic or on crowded trains; dogs went on with their doggy lives. James Hodgkinson, suburban homeowner and small businessman, might have been a part of this picture yesterday. But for some reason, he magnified comparatively small policy differences into an ideological gulf, the immensity of which drove him to commit a lethal act.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

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