Early Sunday morning, unknown arsonists firebombed a Republican headquarters in Orange County, North Carolina, for undetermined reasons. By Sunday evening, Republican nominee Donald Trump had blamed the bombing on Democrats representing Hillary Clinton, and by 9 p.m. that night, more than 500 Democrats and independents had exceeded the $10,000 goal of the online campaign we had started to fund the reopening of the office within 45 minutes of setting it up. That the project took off so quickly says something hopeful in a season unused to such news.
My name was on the GoFundMe account, but the project — inspired by a tweet by Zeynep Tufekci, who suggested Democrats should lend an office to the Republicans — was the work of a few friends who put it together. However, the effort truly belongs to the 520 people who contributed.
The description on the GoFundMe page notes that the funding campaign was started by Democrats, while welcoming the help of independents and others. I cannot speak for all of them, but I’m going to guess not a single one of them thought, “Gosh, the poor North Carolina Republican Party needs our money most.” Rebuilding a local political office pales in comparison with the needs of, say, Haitians in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew or your local food bank. And, presumably, a very high percentage of the Democrat contributors disagree with the GOP at large, and especially with the North Carolina GOP, which has strongly supported some of the most regressive policies on the national landscape: harsh anti-LGBTQ legislation and anti-black voter suppression tactics, to name just two. From a Democrat’s point of view, the North Carolina GOP is a strong candidate for the worst state-level Republican outpost in the country. So why give money to a party if you believe it is trying to deny classes of people their democratic rights?
I can certainly see the power of that argument. I wouldn’t try to talk anyone out of it, if they had chosen not to contribute. At the same time, the fact that this particular Republican state party stands in the sharpest contradiction to Democratic values and policies is part of what made the fund seem like a good idea to our little ad hoc group, and presumably to many of the contributors. The contradiction makes the meaning of the contributions to the fund crystal clear: We don’t know the political beliefs of those who committed this act of terrorism, but the words painted on the wall of a nearby building — “Nazi Republicans get out of town or else” — show that this was an attack on democracy itself. America ceases to be a democracy when its processes are disrupted by violence, threats or intimidation. This crowdfunding effort was an opportunity for many of us to state in public, with some of our hard-earned money, that democracy trumps threats, intimidation and violence.
Many of us feel that in this election-cycle violence is being normalized. It may not always end in a punch in the face or a firebomb, but the egging on of mobs, the threats of lawsuits, the name-calling, the unwillingness to firmly commit to accepting the outcome of the election because it is being “rigged” — all of these should make us worried for the future of our democracy. We have seen where this path has led other countries recently and in the not-so-distant past.
The North Carolina GOP’s need was a chance to remember the norms democracy needs to survive: decency, respect, empathy and a sense of commonality. Together, these virtues constitute the premise of American democracy. The eagerness of contributors to our fund to reach across the political chasm that divides us should give us some hope.
Still, hope is not enough. We need to denormalize the demeaning, depersonalizing rhetoric that presages physical assaults. We need to reflect our decency and empathy in our laws and norms. We need to enthusiastically participate in the grinding struggles that bring about an ever more just, fair, and caring nation without descending into violence or threats of violence. I hope Republicans will view this token of goodwill on behalf of hundreds of Democrats and independents as an invitation to move in that direction.
Remembering our shared love of democracy is just the barest beginning if we want to make democracy great again.
Weinberger writes about the effect of technology on ideas and am a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.