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Artillery Row

Why civility matters, even when it’s hard

Swallowing our pride is better than political violence

Around 2018, America witnessed a debate about whether it was appropriate to confront members of the Trump administration in public. In one of many such altercations, a woman shouted “shame on you” at Kellyanne Conway, then a White House advisor, at a Mexican restaurant in Bethesda Maryland. 

The “activist” in question may have listened to the advice of a veteran Democratic congresswoman from California, Maxine Waters, among other progressive leaders. Waters urged people to “show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere. We’ve got to get the children connected to their parents.”

Fast forward to Slovakia, May 15, 2024. The country’s pugilistic prime minister, Robert Fico, was shot by a 71-year old man who, in his words, “[disapproved] of the government’s policies.” The perpetrator, a retired supermarket security guard and author of bad poetry, was a self-styled activist against violence and the coarsening of public discourse, presumably pushed over the edge by the overwrought polarisation that Slovakia has been experiencing.

The point is not to compare the two events nor to establish a causal link between minor and major transgressions against social order and civility. Both examples, however, illustrate a worrying spilling out of politics away from traditional avenues of political contestation — parliamentary debate, elections, and the opinion pages of newspapers — into everyday life. Both cases also illustrate the dark side of the way political information is filtered through the new, democratised media ecosystem with few guardrails or incentives fostering moderation.

One of the central features of American life during the Trump administration, and arguably the main reason why the man would lose his re-election, was not the shocking character of his policies, which were oftentimes in line with the Republican orthodoxy. Rather, it was the collective neurosis that his larger-than-life personality inflicted both on his opponents and supporters. 

The epithet of “fascism” was being thrown around with a shocking degree of lightness, alongside the notion that Trump had not been elected properly because of possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. Both gave a strong sense of self-righteousness to Trump’s opponents — who could see themselves as the modern-day equivalents of resistance fighters hiding in the forests of Poland in the 1940s — and fostered indignation on the right where a cohort of anti-anti-Trumpers emerged to rationalise and justify the president’s antics against oftentimes exaggerated criticisms. 

Fico, meanwhile, has had two decades to get under the skin of his opponents. Notoriously corrupt, he had to resign in 2018 on the back of allegations that the mobsters that had ordered the heinous killing of the journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, had connections to Fico’s party, Smer. What seems unbearable to many Slovaks today is that Fico has since managed an impressive political comeback, while doubling down on his most divisive attributes — shilling for Russia as well as a worsening coarseness of his language. Over the years, Fico has called opposition figures and journalists “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes,” “idiots,” “rats,” and “criminals.” 

In contrast to the chaos that characterised Trump’s White House, Fico’s return to power in Slovakia in October 2023 has been characterised by a degree of ruthlessness —- the new government has changed the criminal code and scrapped the so-called special prosecutor’s office to protect Smer-connected figures from criminal liability in a host of corruption-related scandals. There is a law in the pipeline that will bring public broadcasting under political control, as well as a version of the infamous, Russian-style, “foreign agent” law — just like the one that drove hundreds of thousands of Georgians into the streets in recent weeks. 

Slovaks, too, have been protesting the impending reforms in recent months, in completely peaceful, respectful ways. Fico’s shooter, who took part in the protests earlier this year, seems to have deluded himself into thinking that he needed to bring his “resistance” to the next level. While the choice he made was an extreme one, mobs across America have similarly turned their anger into violence — against the police in the summer of 2020, against a supposedly stolen election on January 6, 2021, and most recently against Israel and Jews on elite campuses. 

In both countries, the advent of bad things was heralded by the sudden omnipresence of politics. Radical politics has been around university campuses for a long time. To see it in suburban Mexican restaurants is a novelty. Today, Slovaks in public life have largely acquiesced to the stream of online abuse and threats on social media. Earlier this year, however, Zuzana Kovačič Hanzelová, a high-profile liberal journalist, decided to withdraw from public life after threatening in-person encounters that went ignored by the police. 

One does not need to harbour any affection for either of the two men to recognize the value of a societal injunction against harassing strangers

On the other end of the spectrum, Erik Kaliňák, Fico’s chief advisor, and Luboš Blaha, an openly pro-Kremlin member of parliament from Smer, were reportedly confronted and shouted at by strangers. Kaliňák, who later published a video of the incident, was on the street with his wife; Blaha, meanwhile, was shopping for groceries with his children. One does not need to harbour any affection for either of the two men to recognize the value of a societal injunction against harassing strangers.

In the United States, death threats to public officials appear ubiquitous, even though we may lack a sense of the number of effectively thought-out plots that have been thwarted by the FBI and the Secret Service. But even in the tiny Slovakia, last week’s assassination attempt was not completely without precedent. In 2022, Slovakia’s capital was shaken by the shooting of two people outside of a bar frequented by the LGBT community. The 19-year old perpetrator, who left behind a manifesto filled with white supremacist and conspiratorial vitriol before killing himself, had been taking selfies in front of the residence of then-prime minister, Eduard Heger — a political opponent of Fico — who received a mention in the manifesto as a potential target, alongside Fico himself.

It is worth adding that Slovakia’s descent into the crude, vulgar politics that may encourage unstable people to take things into their hands has been assisted not only by Fico, but also by the somewhat clownish figure of Igor Matovič, a populist leader who entered politics in 2010 with the promise of locking Fico up, and who formed a largely dysfunctional government in the early days of the 2020 pandemic. The expectation, nurtured by Matovič that Fico would somehow end up in jail closely mirrors the magical thinking that has taken root in the United States, where many otherwise thoughtful people believe that the assortment of shaky legal cases against Trump will deliver the country from a man who enjoys the backing of a good third of the country’s population. 

In Slovakia, the shooting has provided a shock to the system. The departing and incoming presidents, from two opposing political camps, made a joint statement condemning the act and urging calm. On Tuesday, the parliament adopted unanimously a resolution that similarly condemned political violence. But unless Fico walks out of the hospital as a different, more conciliatory figure, it is only a matter of time until the governing coalition reverts back to its Orbán-like shenanigans, against a chastened opposition.

Yet, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. Democratic politics, in Slovakia and in the United States, does not offer the prospect of a national kumbaya. While vastly different in any number of ways, both are pluralistic societies, with citizens who hold vastly conflicting opinions and values. From abortion and gay rights to geopolitics, we have no choice but to live alongside people whose views on fundamental issues we find abhorrent. The best democratic politics can do is to channel such conflicts — which can otherwise lead to bloodshed — into highly structured, institutionalised forms confined to the boundaries that most of us find legitimate. Here’s to hoping that, on the back of the disturbing story from Slovakia’s mining town of Handlová, we can re-learn to appreciate this miracle of Western political thought.

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