On Saturday night, someone threw a flammable bottle into a Republican headquarters in North Carolina, setting much of the office inside ablaze. An adjacent building was spray-painted with a swastika and the message, “Nazi Republicans Get Out of Town or Else.”
Local law enforcement has opened a criminal investigation. An official with the state’s GOP called it an act of “political terrorism.” The state’s governor, Pat McCrory, lamented it as an “attack on democracy.”
We still have no idea who committed the firebombing or why. But the incident has immediately contributed to fears of escalating political violence ahead of the most negative presidential election in modern American history — a campaign already marked by attacks on protesters at rallies, clashes between demonstrators and police, and early calls for riots if one candidate loses.
Of course, nobody knows if this will prove an isolated attack or a harbinger of more election-related violence to come. But with Donald Trump accusing “animals” representing Hillary Clinton of being behind the attack, and liberals openly suspecting a conservative “false flag” operation, the North Carolina firebombing is already being subsumed in the same extreme partisan reactions that may have helped provoke it in the first place. And that may be nearly as much cause for alarm as the firebombing itself.
What do we know about the attack?
The firebombing occurred in the town of Hillsborough in North Carolina’s Orange County. According to a statement on the town government website, a fire burnt some furniture and the interior of the building.
Nobody was hurt in the attack. The town of Hillsborough has asked anyone with information to submit an anonymous crime tip or contact the police officer investigating the crime.
The executive director of the North Carolina GOP told the Charlotte News-Observer that the building is “a total loss,” and photos show the extent of the damage:
The Charlotte-Observer has had the best on-the-ground reporting about the crime:
The inside of the office, which contained campaign signs and other election materials, was blackened by soot, and broken glass littered the floor Sunday evening. Office equipment including a printer had melted …
Volunteer Bob Randall was there to clean up Sunday. He said he believes that the bombing was an act of political terrorism and that it would get people angry and motivated to vote Republican.
On Monday, Hillsborough police said they were continuing to gather evidence about the arson and graffiti. State and federal agencies, including the FBI, have come forward to help with the investigation.
The (mostly) bipartisan reaction the NC firebombing
For the most part, prominent members of both political parties recognized the need to lower the temperature and resist pointing fingers that might inflame tensions of an already white-hot controversy.
Hillary Clinton, for instance, tweeted a message that she was “very grateful” nobody had been hurt. The message was welcomed by North Carolina Republicans:
The attack on the Orange County HQ @NCGOP office is horrific and unacceptable. Very grateful that everyone is safe.— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 16, 2016
In response to the attack, a handful of Democrats and liberals also began raising money to help show bipartisan unity. One fundraising site raised $13,000 to help the North Carolina GOP rebuild the headquarters. On Twitter, the campaign’s organizers talked about the need for “civility & decency,” arguing that it’s important to demonstrate concern for political rivals despite opposing goals.
GOAL MET! It took less than 40 non-partisan mins to raise $10,000 to re-open firebombed Repub office. A thirst for civility & democracy!— David Weinberger (@dweinberger) October 17, 2016
The Charlotte-Observer captured the sentiment of the people leading the effort:
Democrats behind the GoFundMe page referred to the spray painted message as “an abhorrent threat.” The group said its online campaign is aimed at helping the office reopen as soon as possible. The campaign is not an official effort of the Democratic Party, but rather the work of a group of supportive Democrats.
“Until an investigation is undertaken, we cannot know who did this or why. No matter the result, this is not how Americans resolve their differences. We talk, we argue, sometimes we march, and most of all we vote. We do not resort to violence by individuals or by mobs,” said a message on the GoFundMe account.
“So, let’s all pitch in, no matter what your party affiliation, in and get that office open again quickly.”
This may seem like an uncontroversial way to demonstrate a sense of shared sense of horror about an unwelcome attack on a democratic institution. It’s proven anything but that.
A small but vocal backlash against bipartisanship emerged
Despite the anodyne reactions, there’s been a cascade of responses to the firebombing that fall outside sending support and waiting for the results of an investigation to assign blame.
Take Donald Trump. Shortly after the attack, rejecting the path taken by the North Carolina Republicans, Trump immediately accused unnamed agents connected to Clinton and the North Carolina Democrats of orchestrating the attack. (Trump did say the attack occurred “because we are winning,” though most polls show Clinton leading in the state by several points.)
Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems in North Carolina just firebombed our office in Orange County because we are winning @NCGOP— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
Trump baselessly accusing Clinton of being behind the firebombing was crass. But he wasn’t alone in tying his political foes, without much of any evidence, to the attack itself.
“The left likes to talk a lot about incendiary rhetoric,” wrote Daniel Greenfield at the right-wing Front Page magazine. “This is what actual incendiary rhetoric looks like. And these are its results.”
Trump may have taken the extraordinary step of identifying an attacker without cause, but some liberals were also quick to speculate about possible motives. On Twitter, for instance, Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall noted that there have been a number of “false flag” attacks created to gin up sympathy for the victims — raising the possibility that this was done by Republicans looking to make Republicans look more sympathetic:
1:Remember, a number of false flag type 'attacks' in recent yrs in which partisans attack their own to gain sympathy https://t.co/Xnz7POZA9U— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) October 17, 2016
It’s certainly theoretically possible that this was a false flag attack. In 2008, a John McCain volunteer alleged someone carved a “B” onto her face — an accusation that turned out to be invented.
But without more information about who is suspected to have carried out the attack, there’s no reason to believe it is a “false flag” operation. And it’s hard to see that speculation as much other than the partisan inverse of the speculation that fearful liberal rhetoric about Trump is to blame for inspiring the attack.
Liberals face criticism on left for contributing to Republican Party
Beyond questions of blame, a new controversy emerged Monday morning in left-wing circles over whether the liberal fundraisers were right to give money that would ultimately end up being used for conservative aims.
The blogger and Jacobin contributor Carl Beijer warned that the money “will certainly aid the notoriously reactionary North Carolina GOP” and that the donations “will be a net gain for the American right, and a net loss for their victims.”
Hundreds of others on Twitter voiced a similar perspective:
"I am sorry about the firebombing. Please take this money to help convince voters that my trans friends are scary perverts." -Dems— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) October 17, 2016
Okay no more angry North Carolina tweets but please rethink your priorities if this was how you decided to spend your hard-earned money— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) October 17, 2016
I'm trying to figure out how the people who think you can donate the GOP to civility aren't the weirdo idealists in this scenario— Screamin' Williams (@Brock_toon) October 17, 2016
every chicken shit liberal donating to the gop tonight is the perfect culmination to this election. i couldnt make up a more absurd scenario— leon (@leyawn) October 17, 2016
The pressure even got some to reverse course. Anil Dash, a prominent tech blogger, had donated to the fundraiser. But, facing criticism on Twitter, he decided that he didn’t want to be complicit in supporting the Republican Party.
After listening, it's clear I conflated personal empathy for victims of violence w/ institutional support for @NCGOP denying others rights.— Anil Dash (@anildash) October 17, 2016
I'll be withdrawing my donation & continuing to support organizations fighting for justice & civil rights in NC and beyond, as I have been.— Anil Dash (@anildash) October 17, 2016
This is a lot of hand-wringing over a relatively puny sum. After all, the $13,000 raised by Democrats and liberals doesn’t seem that significant when compared to the $2.5 million raised in 2016 by the Republican Party of North Carolina. It’s hard to imagine what real-world impact such a small donation could actually have on policy in any meaningful way given the $11 million raised by North Carolina’s Republican Senate candidate.
It’s also a relative pittance in the overall world of bad philanthropy. There are lots of worse examples of wasteful philanthropy to get upset about, including $100 million dumped into the richest park in the world or the outrageous multi-million dollar gifts the super-rich lavish on private universities.
But is the symbolic gesture itself worthy of condemning? As Vox’s Dara Lind notes, the destruction of the Hillsborough offices don’t just amount to a local property crime. They amount to an assault on a political institution:
Regardless of who firebombed the office, and what their motive ultimately was, it’s an unacceptable attack on a political institution.
The 2016 election has already seen occasional flare-ups of violence, including Trump protesters getting punched at rallies and Trump supporters being pelted with objects at protests. In recent weeks, Donald Trump has urged his supporters to show up in force at polling places in “certain areas” (generally understood to be nonwhite neighborhoods), raising fears of Election Day violence.
Trump and some conservatives have tried creating a narrative that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are so dangerous, so crooked, that they’re willing to commit literal acts of terrorism like firebombing to influence the voting results. And if that’s true, then — from the perspective of his supporters — of course she’s willing to steal an election by other means.
The liberals who started the fundraiser tried to fight that narrative through a gesture in the wake of a jarring event. There are certainly more utilitarian uses for the cash and more deserving causes. But as one of the fundraisers explained to the Boston Globe, some liberals wanted to create “an expression of commitment to democracy” that goes above and beyond partisan and rancor. And that is apparently now a controversial act.