Are we entering a new era of political violence?
That the United States made it through President Joe Biden’s inauguration without any major act of violence is a relief. But the fact that we had to be seriously worried about it — to the point of deploying 25,000 National Guard troops to secure Washington, DC — illustrates that something has gone badly wrong.
A country that once stood itself up as a model of liberal democratic stability is now beginning to reckon with the fact that it is at serious risk of a major wave of political violence.
Federal agents have been warning of a surge in far-right violence since at least 2009, but Trump’s malign influence supercharged the threat. The Trump years have seen a flurry of deadly right-wing violence: the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville; 16 pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and media figures; the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue; and then the Capitol assault, a literal attack on the democratic process by an armed mob fueled by bigotry and conspiracy theories.
As Biden’s presidency begins, Americans are faced with the possibility that we are entering a new era of political violence — one that Trump and his party have stoked for years.
There’s no way to know what’s coming, of course. Experts on terrorism and political violence disagree sharply among themselves on just how dangerous things could get. But there are clear reasons for concern.
“We haven’t really seen what I would call a sustained terrorist campaign in this country since the 1970s. [Today, there’s] probably a higher risk than any time since the 1970s,” says J.M. Berger, a fellow at the EU’s VOX-Pol research network. “I think after the last four years … our capacity for resilience might be wearing thin.”
In some ways, the fact that we’re even asking the question — are we entering a new era of political violence? — says it all.
Sustained campaigns of political violence don’t happen in a vacuum; they become plausible only when societies are rent by deep and serious cleavages. The GOP’s willingness to play with rhetorical fire — stoking racial resentment, delegitimizing the Democratic Party and the democratic process, and even indulging in naked appeals to violent fantasies — has created an environment that can encourage the outbreak of right-wing violence. This is already doing concrete damage to our democracy: Several Republican legislators have said they would have supported impeachment if doing so did not pose a threat to their families’ lives.
This specter of violence hanging over our politics may prove to be one of Trump’s most enduring legacies, and a steep challenge for a Biden administration already facing crises on multiple fronts.
A new era of political violence?
To understand the risks America is facing right now, it’s worth unpacking Berger’s note about the 1970s — perhaps the closest historical analogue to what could happen in the coming months and years.
Few today appreciate just how violent the 1970s were. The failures of 1960s radical movements drove a faction of the left toward political violence, leading to an era pockmarked by bombings, kidnappings, and other violent acts.
According to the University of Maryland’s START database, there were more terrorist attacks in the US in the 1970s (1,471) than there were in the next 36 years combined (1,323) — averaging out to about three attacks per week for an entire decade. High-profile targets included the Capitol and the Pentagon. In 1976, a California-based radical group placed a bomb in a flower box outside Dianne Feinstein’s daughter’s bedroom (at the time, the now-senator was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors).
Sixty-eight percent of these attacks were attributable to 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 in the Armed Forces of National Liberation, and a Black Panther splinter group called the Black Liberation Army.
Today, the principal domestic terrorist threat is on the right, not the left. While there certainly has been violence by left-wing individuals — like the 2017 attack on the Republican congressional baseball team’s practice where then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) was shot — repeated assessments from US officials and independent experts rank the far right as a greater threat than the left or even jihadists.
“That the far-right poses the most salient terrorist threat is no longer up for debate,” scholars Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware wrote in a November piece on Lawfare.
As in the 1970s, the threat today is not one large al-Qaeda-style enemy but a series of diffuse groups and individually radicalized perpetrators, all of whom are frustrated with mainstream politics’ inability to get them what they want — be it a white ethnostate or a second Trump term.
You have outright white supremacists and neo-Nazis, like Atomwaffen. You have anti-government armed groups, like the Three Percenters or Oathkeepers, who see themselves as defending Americans from perceived federal tyranny. You have some “boogaloo” movement members and “accelerationists,” who see violence as a means to destabilize and ultimately collapse the American state. You have the misogynist violence arising out of the incel subculture. And then there are some harder-to-categorize groups, like the street-brawling “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys or the QAnon conspiracy theorists. These groups simultaneously have deep disagreements and some overlap; individual radicals may not “belong” to an organized group but find elements of multiple different ideologies attractive.
Were there to be a ’70s-style sustained terrorist campaign from such militants, the results would likely be deadlier. According to UMD-START, though there were about eight times as many terrorist attacks in the 1970s as between 2010 and 2016, that disparity isn’t reflected in the fatalities (172 versus 140). This is partly the result of tactical choices by the 70s militants themselves, some of whom preferred symbolic bombings of unoccupied buildings over actual killing.
Today’s far right favors bloodier tactics.
The past few years of right-wing shootings — like the 2015 attack on Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the 2018 attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, and the 2019 attack on an El Paso Walmart with a heavily Latino clientele — were designed for maximum casualties, the perpetrators aiming to kill as many people from the groups they hate as possible. The Capitol Hill rioters bludgeoned a police officer to death and allegedly aimed to do more; prosecutors’ court filings warn of plans to take members of Congress hostage and perhaps even execute them.
The idea of a steady drip of right-wing violence in the years ahead seems almost too awful to contemplate. And, to be clear, it’s not inevitable — experts are divided on just how likely it is. Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas said that “I don’t think there will be much” violence in the coming years. University College London’s Kate Cronin-Furman, meanwhile, warned that we were in the midst of a “one-way ratchet” toward higher levels of far-right killing.
There’s evidence for both perspectives. On the one hand, the internet gives authorities a powerful new set of surveillance tools that can be used to monitor extremist groups. Moreover, the post-9/11 security state is very well practiced at disrupting terrorist plots as compared to the FBI of the 1970s.
On the other hand, the internet also allows for individuals to self-radicalize by reading extremist content to a degree impossible in the pre-internet age. In addition, the Trump administration has systematically deprioritized right-wing radicalism (as compared to jihadism) for years — to the point where right-wing radicals 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 DC security duties after investigators discovered ties to right-wing extremism.
The Capitol Hill attack itself could go both ways — finally leading US law enforcement to take the threat of far-right domestic actors seriously, but also helping the far right organize and inspiring its adherents to future violence.
But perhaps the biggest outstanding question is the degree to which the far right gets encouragement from the political mainstream.
Only a tiny proportion of Americans are members of neo-Nazi organizations or Three Percenter militias. But Trump has proven uniquely effective at mainstreaming far-right politics. Whether calling the Charlottesville demonstrators “very fine people,” ordering the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” at a presidential debate, or telling the January 6 rioters that “we love you” as they ransacked the Capitol, the president has made it clear that violent fringe groups are a part of his coalition. There is no doubt that this has galvanized the far right, promoting recruiting and encouraging those who are already radicalized to be more violent.
In the days following the January 6 assault on the Capitol, Politico reporter Tim Alberta tweeted that “the stuff I’ve heard in the last 72 hours—from members of Congress, law enforcement friends, gun shop owners, MAGA devotees—is absolutely chilling. We need to brace for a wave of violence in this country. Not just over the next couple of weeks, but over the next couple of years.”
The question now is how the mainstream Republican Party handles this threat of violence. On this score, we have few reasons for optimism.
The Republican Party’s delegitimization of Democrats and the mainstreaming of political violence
In 1964, right-wing radical Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president — and the endorsement of both the Georgia and Alabama chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. When asked for comment, Republican National Committee Chair Dean Burch welcomed the Klan’s support: “We’re not in the business of discouraging votes,” he told the Associated Press.
Though Goldwater eventually overrode Burch and disavowed the Klan, he did little to distance himself from other far-right supporters — like the viciously anti-Semitic minister Gerald L.K. Smith, who praised Goldwater because “every Jewish journal is against him.”
In a 2019 paper, the political scientists Sam Rosenfeld and Daniel Schlozman find that the Goldwater campaign’s approach to extremism “presaged a half century of Republican politics to come.” The conservative movement, and the Republican Party it has long dominated, was so preoccupied with its eternal quest to defeat its liberal enemies that it had no interest in seriously policing its own right flanks.
“The goal to smash liberalism came first,” Rosenfeld and Schlozman write, leading to “a politics devoid of … internal checks on extremism.”
These two factors — the GOP’s all-consuming hatred of liberalism and its attendant unwillingness to police 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 fringe can thrive.
For decades now, the Republican Party and the right-wing media echo chamber have been telling its faithful that mainstream Democrats are not just political rivals but an existential threat. Just think about the things that have been said on Fox and talk radio in the past decade: Glenn Beck arguing that AmeriCorps would become Obama’s SS, Rush Limbaugh claiming that Obama’s America was a place where white children would be beaten while Black ones cheered, and — of course — the spread of Donald Trump’s claim that Obama wasn’t born in America, something 56 percent of Republicans still believe.
The defining essay of the Trump era is a 2016 piece called the “The Flight 93 Election.” Written by Michael Anton, a conservative academic who would later serve on Trump’s National Security Council, it compared the election to the single disrupted 9/11 hijacking — United Flight 93, in which brave passengers stormed the cockpit and forced the plane to crash before hitting its target (the Capitol). If Trump loses, Anton argued, America as we know it would collapse: “Charge the cockpit or you die.”
That call to action in the face of an existential threat has animated 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 have become — via debates about the Second Amendment — an integral part of modern right-wing thinking. Republicans explicitly argue “that our constitution guarantees every American the right to prepare for armed confrontation with the government.” They note:
In Heller v. DC, a  challenge to the District of Columbia’s gun laws, the NRA, appearing as an amicus curiae, contended that one purpose of the Second Amendment is to protect an individual right to arm against the ‘depredations of a tyrannical government.’ The vice president of the United States and 305 members of Congress asked the Court to support that view. And in fact, in a landmark decision striking down parts of the District’s gun laws, the Court found that the Second Amendment includes an individual right to insurrection. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that citizens acting on their own are entitled to arm themselves and connect with others ‘in a citizen militia’ to counter government tyranny.
For many conservatives, this is merely an issue of originalist jurisprudence: The founders believed this, and, like it or not, it’s how we must think about our gun laws, too. But if you live in right-wing spaces, told constantly by politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and media figures like Limbaugh that Democrats are tyrants in the making, why wouldn’t you conclude that the time for insurrection is nigh?
Some Republicans make this linkage more clearly. In 2016, for example, then-candidate Trump suggested that “Second Amendment people” might be justified in using force to resist rulings from judges appointed by Hillary Clinton. In December, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) posted a tweet comparing coronavirus lockdowns to the “tyranny” opposed by the founders, following it up with an interview in which she said the Second Amendment is for “hunting tyrants.”
Trump and legislators like Boebert, a QAnon supporter, are not the type of people that the Republican establishment ideally wants to put forward. But in both cases, the party’s leadership could have repudiated the candidates after their respective primary victories and chose not to — because beating Democrats was more important than beating extremism.
The Republican Party’s inability to self-police is one of the big reasons to be pessimistic about America’s ability to head off a coming violent wave.
It’s not just that Trump is unlikely to be fully repudiated by his party; it’s that his extremist allies will remain party members in good standing. Sens. Cruz and Josh Hawley (MO), who helped legitimize Trump’s push to overturn the 2020 election results, and the majority of House Republicans backed this effort; the most extreme ones, like Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA), have only gotten more prominent since the Capitol Hill attack.
“We’ve got previously fairly mainstream-ish GOP politicians emboldened to directly undermine the Constitution; we’ve got MAGA fools feeling empowered to make more and more explicit threats,” Cronin-Furman says.
“In the current climate, they’re deriving increasing benefits from their actions and paying basically no costs.”
Democracy under attack
The most successful terrorist campaign in American political history took place after the Civil War.
Ex-Confederate soldiers and ordinary Southerners unwilling to give up on white supremacy formed a series of violent cells aimed at undermining Reconstruction. Their attacks, the most infamous of which were lynchings of recently freed Black people, aimed to disrupt racially egalitarian governments and impose costs on the North for continuing to occupy Southern land. The violence increased after Reconstruction ended, working to intimidate local Black populations while Southern states created new regimes that would render them second-class citizens.
Southern lynch mobs did not strike at random; they often targeted Black Americans in ways calculated to depress their political activity and empower the anti-Black Democratic Party. The journalist Ida B. Wells, writing in 1900, saw this clearly.
“These advocates of the ‘unwritten law’ boldly avowed their purpose to intimidate, suppress, and nullify the Negro’s right to vote,” she wrote. “In support of its plans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts, and similar organizations proceeded to beat, exile, and kill Negroes until the purpose of their organization was accomplished.”
Modern statistical evidence bears out Wells’s observation. A 2019 paper in the journal Perspective on Politics found that the numbers of lynchings in a given county went down significantly after state-level imposition of Jim Crow statutes; in other words, the violence only declined after it had accomplished its ends.
Political violence is not part of a healthy democracy; it is its antithesis, used to accomplish ends that cannot be reached 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 do not have formal links with the violent groups, just a shared ideological affinity. This was part of the story of the South after the Civil War; it was part of America’s story in the Trump era, and may well remain one during Biden’s presidency.
In mid-January, Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) said that the threat of violent reprisal was a major reason more House Republicans weren’t voting to impeach Trump in the wake of the attack on the Capitol.
“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 a couple of them broke down in tears — saying that they are 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 for a fact several members *want* to impeach but fear casting that vote could get them or their families murdered,” Alberta writes. “Numerous House Republicans have received death threats in the past week.”
This fear did not only affect the impeachment vote. Rep. Pete Meijer (R-MI) has said that he personally knows several House Republicans who wanted to vote to certify Biden’s 2020 electoral win but were afraid for their lives if they chose to do so.
We do not actually need a huge spike in far-right violence for it to be politically impactful. The mere threat of future violence can poison a democracy.
And the problem is self-replicating. If more moderate Republicans are afraid to speak up, extremists will increasingly speak for the party. The more the extremists speak for the party, the more they will push Republicans voters to the far right and embolden violent far-right actors, further intimidating moderate voices from speaking out.
This is one key difference from the political dynamics of the 1970s. Back then, no significant faction of the Democratic Party was aligned with the violent radicals. Today, large sections of the far right see themselves as acting on behalf of or in conjunction with the Trumpist forces in the Republican Party. In footage of Capitol Hill mobbers ransacking the Senate floor, one attacker justifies his actions by saying “[Ted] Cruz would want us to do this.”
“There seem to be enough guns, political support, and rhetorical space to sustain at least some degree of mobilization by violence-curious radicals,” says Paul Staniland, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “It’s a lot easier to unleash carnage than to pack it back away.”
Biden’s presidency has not ended the threat to American democracy from violent radicals. There’s a real chance it could get worse from here.
Author: Zack Beauchamp