Told  /  Comment

The Fall and Rise of the Guillotine

Ideologues of left and right have learned to stop worrying and love rhetorical violence.

Chanting; red, white, and blue banners waving; crowds infuriated; a guillotine carried through their midst: A scene reminiscent of eighteenth-century Paris played out in Puerto Rico on a Tuesday night in June, as demonstrators participating in a Black Lives Matter protest carried a massive, authentic-looking guillotine to La Forteleza, the governor’s San Juan mansion. Two days earlier, a guillotine had been hauled onto the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, lit by the neon lights of Andy Wurm Tire & Wheel.  

If you’ve been watching a certain segment of the left in recent years, the rise of guillotine iconography won’t be a surprise. Jacobin, the brocialist magazine, famously sells a poster of one of its early covers featuring a guillotine, formatted Ikea-style: “Assembly Required.” The left-wing site Boing Boing has a page titled “Guillotine Watch” (occasionally there’s news about actual guillotines; mainly, it’s just stories about rich people doing objectionable things, presumably meaning they deserve to be beheaded). When numerous wealthy families were found to have bought their children’s way into colleges across the country in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, Twitter became a minefield of calls for the families to be guillotined. In an article on backlash to celebrity culture published in March, The New York Times noted that “the #guillotine2020 hashtag is jumping.” And almost any search on Twitter for the name of a figure disliked by the socialist left—from Brett Kavanaugh to Beto O’Rourke—plus the word “guillotine” will turn up quite a few results, usually pushed by rose-sporting profiles. 

Does the guillotine-happy commentariat really want heads rolling in the streets? Most, likely, do not. Nor are those shouting “Eat the rich”—another, possibly apocryphal, reference to revolutionary France—literally cannibals. Rather, these references are a combination of in-group messaging and out-group shock value, all alluding to a shared radicalism; a shared knowledge of a history of political violence; and a sense of epochal struggle, one that began long before revolutionaries flooded Paris in 1789 and will continue long after the marchers in San Juan and Ferguson are in their graves. For those in the know, it can all be a tongue-in-cheek joke, or it could be serious. For those on the outside, it’s a shock to the system. Naturally, anyone who evinces earnest concern can be met with a doe-eyed response: Lighten up, you take things way too seriously. 

Whether our modern-day executioners intend to deploy the guillotine or simply use it as a prop for a session of rhetorical cosplay, it all nevertheless contributes to the renewed culture of violence in American politics. It is always hard to know if violent political imagery leads to violent acts, but the mere use of such violent iconography indicates that there is a newfound cultural acceptance of violence as a morally defensible means to an end. A recent study of “lethal mass partisanship” by political scientists Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason found that 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats agree that the United States would be better off if a large number of the opposing party’s supporters “just died.” What happens when you give those not-insubstantial groups of Americans a recognizable sigil for the slaying of their political enemies and treat it as an utterly normal part of the public sphere?