The threat of political violence has become a central feature of the 2024 election. The swatting and intimidation of people who have in some way angered Donald Trump is increasingly common. The memories of the Jan. 6 insurrection are still fresh.
To its enormous credit, the Washington Post this week did some breakthrough reporting on the prevalence of political violence.
Under the headline “Violent political threats surge as 2024 begins, haunting American democracy,” Sarah Ellison, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Patrick Marley wrote about a political landscape full of “violent threats and acts of intimidation” since the 2020 election that are now “casting a shadow over the 2024 campaign.”
And they admirably avoided both-sidesing, clearly stating that “many targets share a common attribute: They have done or said something that has earned Trump’s ire.”
The reporters cited experts who have concluded “that the possibility of harm being inflicted on public servants is already undermining the health of U.S. democracy because the intimidation risks influencing their decision-making.”
That was an important drawing of a line in the sand by the Post. But even more encouragingly, that same afternoon a Post reporter asked Trump directly if he would rule out violence by his supporters. Trump. of course, refused.
Under the headline “Trump warns of ‘bedlam,’ declines to rule out violence after court hearing,” Isaac Arnsdorf wrote about how Trump, after an appeals court hearing in which his lawyer claimed he was immune from prosecution, warned that if he were found guilty of trying to overturn the 2020 election ‘bedlam” would ensue.
Arnsdorf valiantly tried to follow up, asking Trump: “You just used the word ‘bedlam’. Would you tell your supporters now: No matter what, no violence?” Trump just walked away.
It’s a question that should be put to every Republican leader, in hopes that at least some of them will answer in the affirmative.
Amazingly, Fox News anchor Bret Baier posed that question to Trump again in a town hall on Wednesday night, asking: “Can you say tonight that political violence is never acceptable?”
Trump’s response was ambiguous. “Well, of course that’s right,” he said initially, but then veered off in a way that suggested he was talking about armed conflicts. “I didn’t start I wasn’t involved in wars,” he said.
Party of Violence?
President Biden spoke out against violence in his first major campaign speech last week: “I’ll say what Donald Trump won’t. Political violence is never, ever acceptable in the United States political system. Never, never, never. It has no place in a democracy. None,” he said.
But that’s hardly going to persuade people on the right.
“Democrats can rail about political violence all they want, but the only way to tamp it down is for Republican leaders to speak out,” Alex Theodoridis, a political science professor at UMass Amherst, said at a Kettering Foundation event on political violence on Tuesday. “They need to hear from elites on their own side that political violence is not OK.”
The absence of that message, Theodoridis said, is a “permission slip” for those “who might engage in criminal and violent behavior.”
Has the GOP become the party of political violence? In the absence of prominent, clear voices against violence on the right that seems like a reasonable conclusion.
A Sustained Effort
There have been occasional news stories about the topic before, but what’s promising about the Post’s coverage is that it suggests a sustained effort to highlight the danger of political violence – and to get Republicans on the record about it.
One Republican congressman confided to Romney that he wanted to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, but chose not to out of fear for his family’s safety. The congressman reasoned that Trump would be impeached by House Democrats with or without him—why put his wife and children at risk if it wouldn’t change the outcome? Later, during the Senate trial, Romney heard the same calculation while talking with a small group of Republican colleagues. When one senator, a member of leadership, said he was leaning toward voting to convict, the others urged him to reconsider. You can’t do that, Romney recalled someone saying. Think of your personal safety, said another. Think of your children. The senator eventually decided they were right.
The New York Times ran an editorial in 2022 warning of the problem:
The embrace of conspiratorial and violent ideology and rhetoric by many Republican politicians during and after the Trump presidency, anti-government anger related to the pandemic, disinformation, cultural polarization, the ubiquity of guns and radicalized internet culture have all led to the current moment, and none of those trends are in retreat. Donald Trump was the first American president to rouse an armed mob that stormed the Capitol and threatened lawmakers. Taken together, these factors form a social scaffolding that allows for the kind of endemic political violence that can undo a democracy. Ours would not be the first.
And a New York Times article last week focused on “the climate of intimidation and the harassment of public officials, including those responsible for overseeing ballot access and voting.”
But overall, the ongoing threat of political violence has been badly undercovered by the elite media.
For instance, a major survey of more than 100 global scholars released in November found that they overwhelmingly believe that political violence is eroding the overall health of democracy in the United States. It got no coverage that I saw.
It’s Not Hopeless
There’s at least one data point suggesting that Republican leaders can be prodded into decrying political violence.
As the Times described in that 2022 editorial, Idaho’s Republican Gov. Brad Little – who had previously been a fan of militias – came out with a strong statement right after police arrested dozens of masked members of the white nationalist hate group Patriot Front packed into the back of a moving truck and intending to disrupt an L.G.B.T.Q. Pride event.
“Intimidation, scare tactics and violence has no place in our great state,” Little said. “All Americans should be able to peacefully express their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech without the threat of violence. It is what has always set America apart from other nations.”
How hard is that?