The Justifiability of anti-Trump Violence: Reply to an Objection
Eric Levitz raised an objection to my reasoning with respect to the ethical permissibility of violent anti-Trump protest tactics that I think is worth considering in greater detail. Before I go any further, let me just state flatly and unambiguously — and the fact that this is even necessary is unfortunate — that I am *NOT* making an argument in favor of violence here. I am teasing out the relevant logic, which is a thing people do when they want to develop a firmer grasp of the principles underlying their political analysis. However, lots of angry online commenters don’t seem familiar with simple logical tools like thought experiments and “If/then” propositions, so evidently the disclaimer is needed.
With that out of the way…
Levitz takes exception with my contention that the efficacy of a given tactic has no necessary bearing on the ethical permissibility of the tactic. Put another way, he argues that the weighing of the ultimate electoral consequences of a tactic can’t be separated from the weighing of the immediate ethical permissibility of the tactic.
Let’s define “efficacious” here as “helping to defeat Trump.” So if a tactic is efficacious, that means it decreases the likelihood that Trump will secure the requisite number of votes to win the presidential election in November.
My argument had been that the ultimate efficaciousness of a given tactic has no necessary bearing on the immediate ethical permissibility of the tactic because the ultimate efficaciousness can’t be known with any certitude. This lack of certitude arises from the fact that the efficacy question pertains to a future event, and the outcome of future events is always unknowable. You can point to speculation of varying merit that purports to know one way or another whether extreme anti-Trump tactics will increase or decrease the likelihood that he wins in November. But that’s not a thing we can know with any certitude.
I contrasted the incertitude inherent in the efficacy question with the certitude inherent in things we *can* know. One thing we can presently know, according to the prevailing liberal critique of Trump, is that Trump has demonstrated his aspirations to fascism. We presently know this because the conclusion is based on events which have already transpired, i.e. Trump’s avowals of fascist beliefs. As such, according to this critique, we can know that the correct description of Trump’s political views and governing philosophy is fascism. So the “Trump = fascist” label can be asserted with certitude; certitude cannot be asserted with regard to how future events will unfold.
There’s something to this efficacy objection, though. It was echoed by Matt Yglesias in his self-described “really boring” Voxpost denouncing anti-Trump violence from a practical and moral standpoint.
Here’s a way to deal with the efficacy problem for the purposes of this *THOUGHT EXPERIMENT.* Let’s assume that a crystal-ball has notified us that extreme, violent anti-Trump tactics are in fact certain to increase the likelihood that Trump wins, and are therefore inefficacious. This would mean, by Levitz’s apparent reckoning, that the extreme tactics are ethically impermissible. But now flip the scenario. Say the crystal-ball instead notifies us that violent anti-Trump tactics make his election LESS likely, and are therefore efficacious. Are violent anti-Trump tactics then permissible? My guess is Levitz would probably still say no. If the answer is no, then “ultimate efficacy” must not be the operative principle in judging the ethical justifiability of extreme anti-Trump tactics.
What’s the operative principle, then? Well, I don’t know for sure. But my whole point in arguing that the ethical permissibility of a tactic is not contingent on its ultimate efficacy was to illustrate why some other principle(s) must be necessary to weigh in making this determination. The determination, I argue, has to hinge on things that are presently knowable. That Trump is fascism incarnate is knowable, according to the prevailing liberal critique. (Which, again, I am not endorsing here.) That Trump is merely 3% behind Hillary in the HuffPost Pollster general election matchup average as of May 25 is knowable. The profound undesirability of a fascist seizing control of the most powerful state in the history of mankind is knowable. The legitimacy or illegitimacy of violent resistance in response to fascist threats is a question to which a knowable answer can be obtained. Those, then, are among the factors which should seem to dictate the immediate ethical permissibility of a tactic, rather than the ultimate efficacy, which — I repeat myself — is unknowable.
Anyway, I’m not positing a grand theory of anything here. Just trying to elucidate inconsistencies in the prevailing liberal critique of Trump, and raise red flags as to how the critique is leading to some weighty logical conundrums.