The Rising Threat of Political Violence
Following the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, the midterms give voters the chance to rethink what kind of country they want to live in
I had thought about taking this day off, what with the realities of jet lag and the seductive pull of sleep. But then came the violent attack (read: assassination attempt) on Paul Pelosi, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband, and it became clear I had to push onward. The issue of political violence is too serious to ignore now.
Saturday’s attack with a hammer by a man who has been posting online pro-Trump, antisemitic and racist writings has gotten me thinking more about political violence—and particularly the rising climate of political violence that can be understood as stochastic terrorism. We have heard that the Berkeley man who broke into the Pelosi house had yelled out “Where is Nancy? Where is Nancy?” in a chilling echo of the disturbing cry by insurrectionists after breaking into the People’s House on Jan. 6.
It’s hard to avoid the alarming fact that four years of violent incitement by Donald Trump—delivered with nearly no condemnation by his party—has succeeded in infecting the minds of too many of our fellow Americans. Capitol Police have seen threats against members of Congress and their families more than double, up from 3,939 in 2017 to 9,625 last year.
Acts that may have appeared as stochastic, or unpredictably random, may now become more regular and frequent. This dangerous reality—which employs the “four D’s” of demonization, dehumanization, desensitization and denial—is driven by the power of social media and other forms of mass communication. At a time of increasingly violent rhetoric, it will be harder for Trump or Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert or a host of other self-serving extremists to distance themselves from the consequences as they attack Democrats in the most incendiary ways to grab attention and whip up crowds. Here’s how California Rep. Eric Swalwell put it:
We must draw the straight lines that connect violent political rhetoric and violent acts. The Pelosi assailant’s Facebook page looks identical to the Facebook pages of Trump, Taylor Greene, and Boebert. All three of them have glorified violence and DePape [Pelosi’s attacker] acted on it.
You may recall that Greene called Nancy Pelosi “a traitor to our country” who is “guilty of treason,” which is “a crime punishable by death.” She’s not the only one on the attack. This year, Republicans have spent nearly $40 million demonizing Pelosi in their political ads. Let’s also not forget the anime video shared by Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar last year that featured him killing New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who now relies on round-the-clock security. She and Pelosi were the target of death threats from a Florida man who was sentenced to 18 months in prison earlier this year.
If there was a time that we could just shake our heads and console ourselves with the assumption that these opportunists are not the brightest lights, that they are fringe operators that the vast majority see through, we are well past that now. The majority of Republicans have swallowed the Big Lie of election fraud and a stolen election. Since Jan. 6, a third of Republicans say that political violence is “sometimes justified.” We have every reason to worry that too many mentally unwell cultists are ready to act on this dangerous idea.
The cry of “Where is Nancy?”—repeated over and over in the minds of the deranged—no longer sounds like a question to ask but a directive to act on. Extremist leaders may deny there are direct correlations between their words and subsequent acts of violence, but the reality is that they have exploited their positions of power and fueled a political climate that will increasingly motivate the most weak-minded and desperate among us.
Jan. 6 could have been an alarm bell, a turning point to slow the violence. “There was an opportunity for the more moderate elements of the Republican Party to distance themselves from the more radical elements and marginalize them, and be the start of the end of this wave,” Michael Jensen, who studies extremist violence, told The Washington Post. “The exact opposite happened. What we saw instead was a doubling down on moving extremism into the mainstream.”
The Trumps, the Greenes and all the others of their ilk—including Arizona’s extremist-in-training Kari Lake—may still be counting on plausible deniability to ensure they are not held accountable for their hateful finger pointing and virulent rhetoric. But there is a rancid aroma around the visible pleasure they get in their violent talk that tells me that—should the Republicans win the midterms—their growing power will unleash their pride of purpose.
That portends not just more of the same, but more explicit efforts to punch down, lash out, and perhaps even relish the response when once seen-to-be-random acts of violence happen more frequently. They have been showing how fear and intimidation are powerful weapons in the toolkit of rising demagogues and autocrats.
Gone are the days when we can treat stochastic terrorism as an abstract concept. In this accelerated age of social media, it should be the responsibility of every political leader to avoid the rhetoric that can trigger radicalized individuals and lead to acts of violence or terrorism. It “should be,” but there are few signs among increasingly extreme Republicans that it will be their chosen path forward, especially as Attorney General Merrick Garland has thus far failed to show that any leaders of the violent attack on the US Capitol will be held accountable.
In just eight days, we will learn what direction Americans have chosen for at least the next two years. We can hope that the attempted homicide of Paul Pelosi—and the probability of growing political violence if the Republicans take the majority—will cause at least some voters to pause and rethink which leaders to choose and what kind of country they want to live in.
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