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The Hooligan Spirit

There are many reasons why even the oldest democracies, such as the US and the UK, are increasingly riven by tribal hatreds. But when political leaders deliberately exploit these rifts and whip up hostile emotions even further, they do immense harm to the institutions that guarantee people’s freedom and safety.

NEW YORK – The late Alan Clark, a British politician of the Margaret Thatcher era, chiefly known for his womanizing and his hard-right views, once lamented to me the decline of the British fighting spirit that built empires and won wars. Half in jest, I suggested that this aggressive disposition was still there among British soccer hooligans who ransack stadiums and foreign towns. He replied with a dreamy look in his eyes that this was indeed something that “might be usefully tapped.”

What seemed a trifle outrageous then is now painfully real. For the hooligan spirit is indeed being tapped. Rightwing terrorism is increasing in the United Kingdom – even as Islamist violence is ebbing, at least for now. British politicians who are against the UK crashing out of the European Union without a deal receive death threats, or worse. Jo Cox, a Labour MP and outspoken anti-Brexiteer, was murdered in 2016 by a man who screamed “Britain First!” as he shot and repeatedly stabbed her.

Britain is hardly unique. In the US, extreme right-wing groups have caused havoc in such places as Charlottesville and Pittsburgh, accompanied by battle cries like “Jews will not replace us” (the “us” meaning white Christian folks). The autocratic Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro openly extols torture. Even in Germany, violent extremism is on the rise, especially in areas that were part of the former Communist East Germany. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown indifference, at best, to acts of political violence by Hindu extremists, often directed at Muslims.

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