The Rise of Political Violence

As a rule, political candidates are not reliable historians of the present. In 2012, while in Minnesota campaigning for reëlection, President Barack Obama recounted his “tussles” with obstructionist Republicans in Congress before indulging in a bit of wishful thinking. “I believe that if we’re successful in this election,” he said, “the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that.” Not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t been following along at home, but the fever did not break. Still, Joe Biden struck the same note in 2019, while campaigning in New Hampshire. “With Donald Trump out of the White House—not a joke—you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” he said. But, as President, Biden started to see the light—or the dying of it. In September, he gave a speech, in Philadelphia, asserting that “equality and democracy are under assault.” Last Wednesday, he spoke again, a few blocks from the Capitol. “As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America—for governor, Congress, attorney general, secretary of state—who won’t commit, they will not commit, to accepting the results of elections that they are running in,” he said. “This is a path to chaos in America.”

The sitting President’s party has lost congressional seats in nearly every midterm election of the past century. When it first happened to Obama, in 2010, he referred to it as a “shellacking.” This shellacking season, the Republicans have no shortage of issues to run on (inflation, Biden’s abject approval ratings), and an expanding array of systemic advantages (the anti-democratic structure of the Senate, the widening asymmetry of gerrymandering, the suppressive spirit of several states’ post-2020 voting laws). But there’s at least a chance that, with enough Democratic turnout, all of this can be overcome. So some Trumpist Republicans have been flirting with another anti-democratic tactic: tacitly exploiting, or even encouraging, an atmosphere of political violence.

Trump, of course, has long revelled in threats of brute force, both veiled and explicit. After each new incitement, G.O.P. leaders have gone through the familiar cycle: consternation, equivocation, whataboutism, and, finally, full capitulation. The result has been a normalization of political violence: “January 6th was a normal tourist visit” is the new Lost Cause dogma, and Republicans who dissent are reëducated or excommunicated. It’s impossible to predict how all this will end, and it would be irresponsible to draw too direct a line between the rhetorical climate and any individual’s actions. But, obviously, none of it bodes well.

Late last month, in the middle of the night, a forty-two-year-old man entered the San Francisco home of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, by shattering a glass door with a hammer. She wasn’t there, but her eighty-two-year-old husband was; in the moments before the intruder was arrested, he used the hammer to bash Paul Pelosi’s skull. The next day, Hillary Clinton tweeted a link to a Los Angeles Times article reporting that the assailant had spread “far-right, bigoted conspiracies.” Elon Musk—the new owner of Twitter, the world’s richest man, and, these days, a folk hero of the far right—replied to Clinton’s tweet, linking to a piece from the Santa Monica Observer, a gossip site filled with salacious clickbait, which speculated that the assault was not a political attack but a hookup gone wrong. The Observer later took down the story; Musk deleted his tweet, but he didn’t apologize or issue a correction. “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences,” he had tweeted on the day he took over the company, shortly before amplifying defamatory misinformation with no consequences. Trump, days later, mused that “the glass, it seems, was broken from the inside to the out, so it wasn’t a break-in, it was a breakout.” According to the police, this is flatly false, but what difference does that make?

The right doesn’t have a monopoly on political violence, of course. Perhaps the most analogous incident in recent memory is the 2017 shooting, by a disturbed gunman who identified with the left, of the Republican congressman Steve Scalise and several others. After that attack, prominent Democrats expressed unqualified condemnation, and sympathy for the victims. After the attack on Paul Pelosi, some Republican officials issued thoughts and prayers; others, such as Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, found a way to blame both sides (“This is what Democrat policies are bringing, but of course we wish Paul Pelosi a recovery”). Still others (Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas; Representative Clay Higgins, of Louisiana) treated the incident as fodder for fatuous conspiracy theories, or as a gruesome punch line.

It’s a journalistic cliché, but a useful exercise: imagine that all this were happening in another country. A political leader, the object of years of menacing rhetoric, is targeted; the opposition party vacillates between downplaying the incident and playing it for cheap laughs. This is also a country with more guns than people, and more than ten mass shootings in an average week. And one where, year after year, voting gets harder, especially for poor people and racial minorities. How would you rate that country’s long-term democratic prospects?

Last week, Brazil held a runoff Presidential election between Jair Bolsonaro, the proto-authoritarian incumbent, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftist former President. Gun ownership had spiked under Bolsonaro, and the months leading up to the election were extraordinarily tense. The journalism nonprofit Agência Pública recorded more than three hundred incidents of election-related violence, including at least fifteen murders and twenty-three assassination attempts. Lula won, by less than two percentage points, and supporters of Bolsonaro, who has insisted for years that the voting system is rigged, took to the streets, demanding that the military overturn the result. Bolsonaro stayed silent for two days, and even then did not formally concede; he distanced himself from “the destruction of property” and other forms of protest, but did not tell his supporters to stand down. Once he is stripped of Presidential immunity, he could face charges of mishandling public funds and recklessly endangering his citizens during the pandemic, accusations he dismisses. But he may be calculating that he can benefit from mass unrest, and from the perception that there is no way to hold him accountable without tearing the country apart.

If this sounds like the kind of thing that can happen only in a relatively young democracy, consider that nearly every move Bolsonaro has made is one first used by Trump. “This is a path to chaos in America,” Biden said. “It’s unprecedented, it’s unlawful, and it’s un-American.” Chaos? Absolutely. Un-American? Maybe. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *