In San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood, an intruder broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home and violently attacked her husband. In a New York courtroom, a man pleaded guilty to threatening to kill California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell. In Washington, federal law enforcement has warned violent domestic extremism poses a high threat ahead of the midterm elections.
All the same day.
The targeting of the home of Speaker Pelosi, a Democrat who is running second in line for the presidency, stood out on Friday for its brutality and sinister intentions. But for many Americans, the shock was tinged with a weary sense of inevitability. Far from being an anomalous event, the attack felt like a coin with the other threats and warnings issued that day – the latest additions to the country’s growing sense of political threat, particularly from the far right.
“Unfortunately, this is a continuation of at least two and a half years of an established pattern of violence against elected officials and local officials, including election workers, that has only escalated,” said Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who studies Political Violence.
Politically motivated violence has had its ups and downs throughout US history. Currently, America is going through an upsurge in right-wing violence, according to researchers who track attacks and other incidents. They say the current climate is comparable to that of the mid-1990s, when a similar wave of right-wing violence culminated in the 1995 bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.
Incidents now range from the unprecedented – the siege of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 by supporters of President Trump trying to reverse his defeat in the 2020 presidential election – to the more daily malevolence of death threats by telephone and e-mail.
There were 9,625 threats against members of Congress and their families last year, according to Capitol Police, more than double the number in 2017. A joint project of the Anti-Defamation League and the University of Princeton tracked 400 incidents of harassment against the local level. election, health and education officials in 43 states from January 2020 to mid-September of this year.
The November 8 midterm elections are rife with potential targets of violence. In several parts of the country, right-wing organizations mobilized poll watchers who, in some cases, confronted early voters. Members of an Arizona-based group, some in tactical gear, took photos of voter license plates at ballot boxes in the Phoenix area; A federal judge on Friday denied a request to ban the observers’ activities, saying the 1st Amendment protected their right to gather in public places.
The cumulative effect of these incidents is a darker national mood, according to polls. In a YouGov poll in August, a strong majority of respondents said they thought political violence would increase in the coming years, and more than half thought America would be less democratic in a generation.
More than 40% of Americans think a civil war is at least somewhat likely within the next decade, according to another YouGov poll this month. One in five people who identified as a strong Republican said they thought a civil war was very likely – more than any other political group.
The unstable atmosphere “tends to influence what I call the signals among the noise – the very few individuals who don’t just talk, but are going to act and are going to be politically violent,” said Reid Meloy, a psychologist forensic scientist who worked as a consultant for the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. “Our job has been to focus on how we detect signals in the midst of noise.”
Over the past decade, politically motivated extremists, most of them right-wing, have killed more than 400 people in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked domestic political violence for 15 years. In 2021, political violence claimed 29 lives, according to the latest ADL report.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, which also tracks extremist violence, found that 2020 and 2021 saw the most attacks since it began tracking incidents in 1994.
There was “a historically high level of far-right and far-left terror attacks in 2021,” researchers at the bipartisan think tank said, adding that “far-right violent incidents were significantly more likely to be lethal, both in terms of weapon choices and the number of resulting fatalities.
Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, likened the nation to a landscape full of flammable hazards during wildfire season.
“This combustible material doesn’t self-extinguish – you need a lightning strike or a cigar butt to set it off,” Pape said.
“We are a powder keg right now. … The difference between right and left is that you get thunderbolts from the right,” he continued. “It happens over and over again.”
“Thunderbolts,” Pape said, are messages, explicit or implied, from prominent Republican politicians or media personalities who use inflammatory rhetoric and nods to conspiracy theories to stoke animosity against their ideological opponents.
Animosity against Republicans also led to danger and bloodshed. Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the third Republican in the House of Representatives, was seriously injured in 2017 when a gunman opened fire on a GOP congressional baseball team practice. And in June, a California man armed with a gun, knife and tactical gear was arrested outside the home of conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in Maryland; the man now faces attempted murder charges.
Although some Democrats have been criticized for their provocative language — with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer warning conservative justices they had “let go of the whirlwind” after toppling Roe against Wade, for example — Pope has said the party as a whole, especially President Biden, has been more forceful than Republicans in renouncing extremist rhetoric and actions.
“It’s one thing to condemn violence,” Biden told reporters Saturday after casting his ballot early in Delaware. “But you can’t condemn the violence unless you condemn these people who argue the election isn’t real. … The conversation must stop. This is the problem.”
Republicans who said they strongly or very strongly believed the 2020 election was stolen and that Biden was an illegitimate president – about 15% of the population – were “much more likely than others to consider violence as usually or always justified” to achieve certain goals, according to a study by the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program.
But there are reasons for optimism, according to recent research from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which Pape directs. The share of Trump supporters who believe the use of force is justified to restore him to the presidency fell 33% between April and September this year – a drop to around 13 million Americans justifying violence, down from 21 million.
The decline occurred over a period marked by several high-profile acts of ideological violence. These included a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, by a proponent of the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that targeted black shoppers; and an armed Trump supporter’s attempted attack on an FBI field office in Cincinnati days after agents searched the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate for poorly preserved classified documents. .
The summer also saw concerted efforts to draw attention to the growing threat of political violence. Congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection publicly explored the extent of the violence that day, as well as the many lies Trump and his allies told about voter fraud. And Biden devoted an entire speech in Philadelphia to warning of the peril to democracy.
The idea that political violence is inevitable “is wrong,” Pape said. “Denunciation and shaming, as the January 6 committee and President Biden’s speeches did, likely diminish support for violence. But we have a long way to go.
Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican who sits on the Jan. 6 panel, said Friday that the attack on Pelosi’s husband was a consequence of right-wing conspiracy theories.
“When you convince people that politicians are rigging elections, drinking babies’ blood, etc., you will get violence. This must be rejected,” he wrote on Twitter.
And GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska described the dynamic as “increasingly evident: Disturbed individuals will easily succumb to conspiracy theories and rage — the consequences are bloody and un-American.”
Both men leave Congress.
Most GOP officials denounced Friday’s attack and offered thoughts and prayers without commenting on the larger political context.
The power of partisan reflexes was on full display when Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, appeared to come to terms with the incident just hours after news broke of the attack.
“There is no place for violence anywhere, but we will send [Speaker Pelosi] back to be with him in California,” Youngkin said during his campaign for a GOP congressional candidate. His audience applauded.
The polarized reactions extended to partisan media. While mainstream and left-leaning media reported on the radicalization to the right, conservative outlets such as Fox News portrayed the assault as evidence of an uncontrollable crime.
In one segment, Fox News host Laura Ingraham expressed concern that a “lone lunatic” was being used as justification to “silence conservative discourse.” His guest Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, assured him that voters would see the incident as the fault of “left-wing elected officials who failed to enforce the laws”.
“The basic understanding of the context in which we live…is literally worlds apart,” Chenoweth said.
The Harvard political scientist said bridging that divide will take time and deliberate effort, noting that research has shown that public figures using their platforms to condemn extremism and false conspiracy theories make a difference.
“What we’re going through is a democracy problem,” Chenoweth said. “What could really help our democracy problem right now is that all of our leaders, including our Republican leaders, are saying over and over again that this stuff has to stop.”