America Is About to Enter Its Years of Lead
Trump’s calls for political violence are a familiar far-right strategy.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” President Donald Trump told his supporters in the far-right street-fighting group from his podium at the first 2020 presidential debate. “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” Four years into the Trump era, Americans have struggled to habituate themselves to the persistent presence of armed paramilitaries at demonstrations and flashes of lethal political violence. What do these hard men herald for our political life? Are they stormtroopers waiting for Trump’s signal to hasten the transition from autocratic attempt to autocratic breakthrough and the final demise of American democracy, as some liberals fear? Or are they a sideshow of confused, lonely men acting out fantasies with semi-automatic rifles?
Both hyperventilating over paramilitary fantasists and laughing off potential death squads miss the mark. The whiff of putsch may be more pungent than feels comfortable at the moment, but the far-right’s window for an extra-legal takeover remains quite narrow, especially if polls hold and Biden wins by a healthy margin. At the same time, American politics really has been destabilized by political violence, overwhelmingly perpetrated by the extreme right. But if the United States is heading into an era of fear and violence, it won’t be the first time this has happened in a democracy—or even the first time this has happened in America itself.
If proud boys and vigilantes can’t pull off a coordinated drive for power, they may opt for a time-honored approach in democratic politics: the “strategy of tension.” In a paper published this spring, University of Winchester criminologists Matt Clement and Vincenzo Scalia defined the strategy of tension as a political method of “state crime,” designed to produce “a climate of fear within communities. [Strategies of tension] employ deceit, threats, and acts of violence in order to maintain control across society through fear of the consequences of challenging the government of the day.”
The term was coined in Italy during the Years of Lead from the late 1960s to the 1980s, when political violence exploded, with bombings, kidnappings, and failed coups making weekly headlines. Under the strategy of tension, as the left grows more militant, influential, and strident in its demands, the right tries to inflame social tensions rather than defuse them. The violence has a dual purpose, to both suppress and provoke. The right’s aim is to cordon the left off from power by simultaneously intimidating them, eliciting escalation, getting the police to crack down, and using the chaos to manipulate public opinion and political alliances.
Virtually every member of the Western Alliance has had its own years of lead, not only Italy but Britain during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, France as it tried to cling to Algeria and was targeted by its own paramilitary terror campaign, South America in the years of Operation Condor, Mexico’s Dirty War, and so on. America is no exception. The country has been here several times before: Bleeding Kansas during the 1850s, when slave-owners and abolitionists faced off in murderous confrontations; the birth of the first Klan after the Civil War to resist Radical Reconstruction; and the wave of violence that accompanied the rise of the Third Klan during the civil rights movement. Elements of the left from John Brown to the Italian Red Brigades have also pursued violent accelerationist campaigns in pursuit of social change. But only the reactionaries have enjoyed approval from more mainstream sources of political power. Often, they got logistical support as well as material and legal cover from security services.
Clement and Scalia described the strategy of tension as a vicious cycle. State prevention of emancipatory politics leads to dissent, which is in turn repressed and delegitimized, further isolating social movements. With no outlet for their demands, activists pursue more radical confrontations, leading their opponents to justify almost any violence in maintenance of the oppressive regime.
That dynamic is on display in the response to this year’s BLM protests. Once initial police suppression was met with uprisings, the “good guys with guns,” “patriots,” and militias showed up. Ostensibly there to protect businesses and support law enforcement, the armed right has instead brought Chekhov’s AR-15 onto the political stage. The inevitable exchanges of gunfire and vehicular assaults at protests demonstrate, as Christina Cauterucci recently wrote for Slate, the political ethos of “own the libs” has escalated into “kill the libs.”
In the classic model, the strategy of tension was associated with Cold War covert action and CIA interference in our allies’ domestic politics. After World War II, Western intelligence agencies really did organize “stay-behind networks” with alumni of both fascist regimes and anti-communist resistance networks in preparation for a possible Soviet invasion.
And a military threat from the east was only one strategic danger: The left, it was feared, could also rise to power in the West at the ballot box and through social movements. The CIA did put its hands on the scale in the elections like Italy in 1948, when left-wing parties were portrayed as Soviet puppets and systemically kept out of a coalition government. In the late 1960s, the rise of the New Left was indeed met with covert violence, police terror, and a string of false flag attacks by neo-Fascists intended to suppress, discredit, and isolate the young movement. In turn, some on the left took up bombing and kidnapping as well, but this retaliation served the right’s ends by contributing to public fear and justifying red scares. The actual degree of coordination between the stay-behind networks, Western intelligence, and the right-wing terrorists of the Years of Lead remains hotly contested. But, as historians Leopoldo Nuti and Olav Riste wrote in an introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies on the strategy of stay-behind in Cold War Europe, “clandestine networks sometimes overlapped, without clear demarcation lines as to missions and functions.”
By contrast, the latter-day American pursuit of the strategy of tension is carried out largely in the open. The armed far-right doesn’t need a covert network to supply it with military equipment because America is awash in legal weapons. Militias and vigilantes don’t have to maintain underground communication networks because social media platforms allow them to operate freely. Police chat up the gunmen as they both eye BLM protesters. While the revelations regarding the Italian security services and political establishment’s relationship to right-wing violence didn’t fully emerge until police and parliament investigated in the 1990s, Republicans have publicly embraced figures like Kyle Rittenhouse, the alleged Kenosha shooter whom Fox News has transformed into a folk hero.
If Biden wins, as polling suggests is likely, it’s hard to imagine the likes of Patriot Prayer will surrender and disappear. After all, Trump has cast the election as an apocalyptic fight for America’s soul with stakes as high as the fight against communism. Republicans portray Biden, however tendentiously, as a tool of Ilhan Omar, BLM, and antifa, and his potential victory as inherently illegitimate, recreating the fear of the left that led many in Europe during the Cold War to try to exclude Socialists and Communists from power.
Given the persistence of the 2020 racial justice movement, it’s hard to imagine that the resurgent left will shy away from making demands of newly empowered Democrats. So to many on the armed far right, it might appear that their work will have only just begun if Biden takes office. They’ve got everything they need to continue operating as a domestic stay-behind network to antagonize, suppress and isolate the left—most valuable of all, permission from above.