It is a relief that the United States emerged from President Joe Biden's inauguration without major acts of violence. But the fact that we had serious concerns – up to and including 25,000 National Guard troops to secure Washington, DC – shows that something bad has gone wrong.
A country that once stood out as a model of liberal democratic stability is now beginning to expect that it is seriously threatened by a great wave of political violence.
Federal agents have been warning of a surge in far-right violence since at least 2009, but Trump's malevolent influence heightened the threat. There was a spate of deadly right-wing violence in the Trump years: the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville; 16 pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and media representatives; the mass shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh; and then the attack on the Capitol, a literal attack by an armed mob on the democratic process fueled by bigotry and conspiracy theories.
As Biden's presidency begins, Americans face the possibility of us entering a new era of political violence – one that Trump and his party have fueled for years.
There is of course no way of knowing what is coming. Terrorism and political violence experts disagree on how dangerous things can get. However, there are clear reasons for concern.
Scenes from a pro-Trump armed protest in Austin, Texas – one of many outside of the state capitals, that took place on Jan. 17. Matthew Busch / AFP via Getty Images
"We haven't really seen what I would call an ongoing terrorist campaign in this country since the 1970s. (Today there is) probably a higher risk than ever before since the 1970s," says JM Berger, a staff member at VOX- Pole Research Network of the EU: "I think after the last four years … our capacity for resilience may decline."
In a sense, the fact that we are even asking the question: are we entering a new era of political violence? – that says it all.
Persistent campaigns of political violence do not take place in a vacuum. They only become plausible when societies are torn apart by deep and serious divisions. The GOP's willingness to play with rhetorical fire – fueling racial resentment, delegitimizing the Democratic Party and the democratic process, and even indulging in bare appeals to violent fantasies – has created an environment that can encourage the outbreak of right-wing violence. This is already doing tangible damage to our democracy: several Republican lawmakers have said they would have supported impeachment if it did not pose a threat to their families' lives.
This specter of violence hanging over our politics could prove to be one of Trump's most enduring legacies and pose a major challenge to a Biden administration already facing crisis on multiple fronts.
A New Era of Political Violence?
To understand the risks America is currently facing, it is worth unpacking Berger's note on the 1970s – perhaps the closest historical analog of what could happen in the months and years to come.
Few today appreciate how violent the 1970s were. The failure of radical movements of the 1960s drove a faction on the left to political violence and led to an era marked by bombings, kidnappings and other acts of violence.
According to the University of Maryland's START database, there were more terrorist attacks in the US in the 1970s (1,471) than in the next 36 years combined (1,323) – an average of three attacks per week for an entire decade. The high profile destinations included the Capitol and the Pentagon. In 1976, a California-based radical group planted a bomb in a flower box outside Dianne Feinstein's daughter's bedroom (the Senator was on the San Francisco Board of Directors at the time).
Sixty-eight percent of these attacks were committed by left-wing militants. Some of the most prominent and violent organizations included the upper and middle class radicals of the Weather Underground, the Marxist Puerto Rican separatists of the National Liberation Forces, and a splinter group of the Black Panthers called the Black Liberation Army.
Today the main domestic terrorist threat is right-wing, not left-wing. While there has certainly been left wing violence – like the 2017 attack on the practice of the Republican Congress baseball team that shot then-house majority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) – repeated assessments by U.S. officials and independents rank high Experts far right as a bigger threat than the left or even jihadists.
Pro-Trump protesters at a rally near the Virginia Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 18. Ryan M. Kelly / AFP via Getty Images
On January 17th, members of the Ohio Boogaloo movement gather near the Columbus statehouse. Stephen Zenne / AFP / Getty Images
"The fact that the far-right party is the greatest terrorist threat is no longer an issue," wrote scholars Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware in an article on lawfare in November.
As in the 1970s, the threat today does not consist of a major al-Qaeda-style enemy, but of a range of diffuse groups and individually radicalized perpetrators, all frustrated by the inability of mainstream politics to get what they are want – be it a white ethnostat or a second Trump term.
They have downright white supremacists and neo-Nazis like nuclear weapons. You have anti-government armed groups like the Three Percent or Oath Guardians who see themselves as the Americans' defenders against perceived federal tyranny. You have some boogaloo movement members and accelerators who see violence as a means to destabilize and ultimately collapse the American state. You have the misogynistic violence that stems from the incel subculture. And then there are some groups that are difficult to categorize, like the street brawl “Western Chauvinist” Proud Boys or the QAnon conspiracy theorists. These groups have both deep disagreements and some overlap; Individual radicals may not belong to an organized group but find elements of several different ideologies attractive.
If there were an ongoing '70s-style terrorist campaign by such militants, the results would likely be more deadly. According to UMD-START, there were about eight times as many terrorist attacks in the 1970s as between 2010 and 2016, but this inequality is not reflected in the deaths (172 compared to 140). This is in part the result of tactical decisions made by the militants themselves in the 1970s, some of whom preferred symbolic bombing of uninhabited buildings to actual killings.
Today's far-right party prefers bloodier tactics.
The last few years of right-wing shootings – like the 2015 attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the 2019 attack on an El Paso Walmart with a heavily Latin American clientele – were designed to make maximum sacrifices, the perpetrators want to kill as many people as possible from the groups they hate. The Capitol Hill rioters beat a police officer to death and allegedly did more. Prosecutors' court records warn of plans to take members of Congress hostage and perhaps even execute them.
Memorial service for Ethel Lance, one of the nine parishioners of the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, who was killed in 2015. Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images
Caskets in front of the Rodef Shalom congregation in Pittsburgh, where the funeral of the brothers Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal – victims of the 2018 tree shooting – took place. Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
Pallbearers spin the coffin of Angelina Englisbee, 86, a victim of the 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart.Mario Tama / Getty Images
The idea of a steady drip of right-wing violence in the years to come seems almost too terrible to think about. And to be clear, it's not inevitable – experts disagree on how likely it is. Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas said "I don't think there will be much violence in the years to come". Kate Cronin-Furman of University College London, meanwhile, warned that we were in the middle of a "one-way ratchet" on the way to a higher level of far-right murder.
There is evidence for both perspectives. On the one hand, the Internet offers authorities powerful new surveillance tools with which to monitor extremist groups. In addition, the post-9/11 security state is very good at disrupting terrorist attacks when compared to the FBI of the 1970s.
On the other hand, the Internet also enables individuals to radicalize themselves by reading extremist content to an extent that was impossible in the pre-Internet age. Additionally, the Trump administration has systematically penalized right-wing extremism (compared to jihadism) for years – to the point where right-wing extremists have successfully infiltrated law enforcement agencies and the armed forces. The day before Biden's inauguration, two members of the National Guard were removed from the DC's security duties after investigators discovered links to right-wing extremism.
The attack on Capitol Hill itself could go both ways – and eventually lead US law enforcement to take seriously the threat posed by far-right domestic actors, but also help the far-right party organize and inspire its followers of future violence.
But perhaps the biggest open question is to what extent the far right party is encouraged by mainstream politics.
Only a tiny fraction of Americans are members of neo-Nazi organizations or three percent militias. But Trump has proven to be uniquely effective at establishing right-wing extremist politics. Whether calling the Charlottesville protesters "very good people", ordering the Proud Boys to "stand down and stand by" in a presidential debate, or tell the January 6 rioters "we love you" when they call the Capitol searched, the president has made it is clear that violent marginalized groups are part of his coalition. There is no doubt that this has got the far-right party on their toes, encouraging recruitment and encouraging those who are already radicalized to become more violent.
In the days following the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Politico reporter Tim Alberta tweeted, “What I've heard in the past 72 hours – from members of Congress, law enforcement friends, gun owners, and MAGA supporters – is absolutely terrifying. We have to prepare for a wave of violence in this country. Not only in the next few weeks, but also in the next few years. "
The question now is how the mainstream Republican Party is dealing with this threat of violence. In this regard we have few reasons to be optimistic.
The delegitimization of the Democrats by the Republican Party and the mainstreaming of political violence
In 1964 right-wing Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president – and approval of the Georgia and Alabama chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. When asked for comment, Dean Burch, chairman of the Republican National Committee, welcomed the clan's support: "We are in no position to discourage voices," he told the Associated Press.
Although Goldwater eventually overruled Burch and rejected the Klan, he did little to distance himself from other far-right supporters – such as the viciously anti-Semitic Minister Gerald L.K. Smith, who praised Goldwater for "every Jewish magazine is against him".
Members of the Ku Klux Klan support Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign at the National Republican Convention on July 12, 1964 in San Francisco, California. Library of Congress / Getty Images
A Goldwater supporter in Lima, Ohio, 1964. Stan Wayman / The LIFE Image Collection via Getty Images
In a 2019 paper, political scientists Sam Rosenfeld and Daniel Schlozman note that the Goldwater campaign's approach to extremism "predicted half a century of republican politics." The Conservative movement and the Republican Party, which it has long ruled, were so preoccupied with their eternal quest to defeat their liberal enemies that they had no interest in seriously monitoring their own right-wing flanks.
"The goal of smashing liberalism came first," write Rosenfeld and Schlozman, which led to "a policy without … internal controls on extremism".
These two factors – the GOP's all-consuming hatred of liberalism and the associated unwillingness to monitor its own members – have not only pushed the party further and further to the right. They have created a climate in which Trumpism and its mainstreaming of the violent fringes can thrive.
For decades, the Republican Party and the right-wing media chamber have told their believers that mainstream Democrats are not just political rivals but an existential threat. Just think of the things that have been said on Fox and on the radio for the past decade: Glenn Beck argued that AmeriCorps would become Obama's SS, Rush Limbaugh claimed Obama's America was a place where white children would be beaten while blacks cheered and, of course, the spread of Donald Trump's claim that Obama was not born in America, which 56 percent of Republicans still believe.
The defining essay of the Trump era is a piece from 2016 entitled "The Flight 93 Election". Written by Michael Anton, a conservative academic who would later serve on Trump's National Security Council, he likened the election to the only troubled hijacking of 9/11 – United Flight 93, in which brave passengers stormed the cockpit and the plane in front of it Impact forced his target (the Capitol). If Trump loses, Anton argued, America as we know it would collapse: "Charge the cockpit or you will die."
This call to action in the face of an existential threat has enlivened conservative discourse for years. In their 2009 book Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea, gun policy experts Joshua Horowitz and Casey Anderson argue that calls to violence – through debates about the second change – have become an integral part of modern right-wing thinking. Republicans specifically argue that "our constitution guarantees every American the right to prepare for armed confrontation with the government." They recognize:
In Heller v. DC, a (2008) challenge to the District of Columbia gun laws, the NRA, acting as the Amicus Curiae, argued that a purpose of the second amendment was to protect an individual right to arm against the "expropriations of a" tyrannical Government. “The Vice President of the United States and 305 members of Congress asked the Tribunal to support this view. Indeed, in a landmark decision that suppressed portions of the district's gun laws, the Court found that the second amendment included an individual right to insurrection. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that citizens who act alone are entitled to arm themselves and associate with others “in a civic militia” to counter the tyranny of the government.
For many conservatives, this is just a matter of originalist jurisprudence: the founders believed this, and whether they like it or not, that's how we must think about our gun laws. But if you live in right-wing spaces that are constantly being told by politicians like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and media outlets like Limbaugh that Democrats are tyrants, then why not conclude that the time for insurrection is near ? ?
Some Republicans make this link clearer. In 2016, for example, then-candidate Trump suggested that "people with the second amendment" could be entitled to use force to resist decisions by Hillary Clinton-appointed judges. In December, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) posted a tweet comparing coronavirus bans to the "tyranny" opposed by the founders, followed by an interview in which she said the second amendment was for "tyranny" .
Trump and lawmakers like Boebert, a QAnon supporter, are not the kind of people the Republican establishment ideally wants to bring forward. In both cases, the party leadership could have rejected the candidates after their respective major victories and could not have done so – because beating democrats was more important than beating extremism.
The Republican Party's inability to self-policing is one of the main reasons it is pessimistic about America's ability to counter a wave of violence to come.
Reps Lauren Boebert (R-CO, center in dark blue) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA, center in red) stand with other newly elected members of the Republican House for a group photo on Jan. 4. Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
Not only is it unlikely that Trump will be completely rejected by his party. The fact is that its extremist allies will remain party members in good standing. Sens. Cruz and Josh Hawley (MO), who helped legitimize Trump's drive to overturn the 2020 election results, and the majority of Republicans in the House backed those efforts. The most extreme, like Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA), have only become better known since the attack on Capitol Hill.
"We have encouraged well-established GOP politicians so far to directly undermine the constitution. We have MAGA fools who feel empowered to make increasingly explicit threats," says Cronin-Furman.
"In the current climate, they are increasingly benefiting from their actions and essentially paying no costs."
The most successful terror campaign in American political history took place after the Civil War.
Ex-Confederate soldiers and common southerners unwilling to give up white supremacy formed a series of violent cells designed to undermine the reconstruction. Their attacks, the most notorious of which were lynchings of recently liberated blacks, were aimed at disrupting racially egalitarian governments and placing costs on the north in continuing to occupy the southern country. Violence increased after the end of the reconstruction and attempted to intimidate the local black population while the southern states created new regimes that would turn them into second-class citizens.
Southern lynch mobs did not strike by accident; They often targeted black Americans to suppress their political activity and strengthen the anti-black Democratic Party. Journalist Ida B. Wells, who wrote in 1900, saw this clearly.
"These advocates of the 'unwritten law' have boldly reaffirmed their intent to intimidate, suppress and overturn the Negro's right to vote," she wrote. "In support of his plans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts and similar organizations beat, exiled and killed Negroes until the purpose of their organization was achieved."
The Ku Klux Klan leader pictured above, David Duke, was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1989 to 1992. He endorsed Trump as president twice. Harold Valentine / AP
Modern statistical data confirm Wells' observation. A 2019 article in Perspective on Politics magazine found that the number of lynchings in a given county declined significantly after the state-level Jim Crow statutes were introduced. In other words, the violence only subsided after it achieved its goals.
Political violence is not part of a healthy democracy. it is its antithesis that is used to achieve goals that cannot be achieved at the ballot box alone. But perversely, such violence can be used by political actors in a democracy to get what they want – even if they have no formal connections to the violent groups, but only a common ideological affinity. This was part of the history of the south after the civil war; It was part of American history in the Trump era, and it could remain so during Biden's presidency.
In mid-January, MP Jason Crow (D-CO) said the threat of violent reprisals was a major reason more House Republicans did not vote to indict Trump after the Capitol attack.
"The majority of them are paralyzed with fear," Crow said on MSNBC. "I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues last night and some of them burst into tears – they said they would be afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment."
Alberta, the Politico correspondent, found in his own reporting that "Crow was right".
"I know several members want to * indict * but fear that voting could kill them or their families," writes Alberta. "Numerous Republicans in the House have received death threats over the past week."
This fear not only affected the impeachment process. Rep. Pete Meijer (R-MI) said he personally knew several House Republicans who wanted to vote to confirm Biden's 2020 election victory but feared for their lives if they did.
We don't really need a large increase in right-wing extremist violence to be politically effective. The mere threat of future violence can poison a democracy.
Armed Trump supporters stand outside the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord on January 17th. Winslow Townson / AP
Self-described Liberty Boys, an anti-government group, stand in front of the Oregon Capitol in Salem on January 17th. Noo Berger / AP
And the problem is self-replication. If more moderate Republicans are afraid to speak out, extremists will increasingly speak for the party. The more the extremists speak for the party, the more they will push Republican voters to the far right and encourage violent right-wing extremists, which further discourages moderate voices from speaking out.
This is a major difference from the political dynamics of the 1970s. At the time, no significant faction in the Democratic Party was targeting the violent radicals. Today, large sections of the extreme right see themselves in the name of or in connection with the Trumpist forces in the Republican Party. In footage of Capitol Hill bullies searching the Senate, one assailant justified his actions by saying, "(Ted) Cruz wants us to do this."
"There seems to be enough guns, political support and rhetorical space to maintain at least some level of mobilization from violent radicals," said Paul Staniland, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "It's a lot easier to unleash carnage than it is to put it away."
Biden's presidency did not end the threat to American democracy from violent radicals. There is a real chance it will get worse from here.
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