Briefing

The growing danger of political violence

Threats of politically motivated violence and actual attacks are soaring. Why is this happening?

Threats of politically motivated violence and actual attacks are soaring. Why is this happening? Here's everything you need to know:

When did violence surge?

Politically motivated violence has waxed and waned throughout American history, but the current upsurge began with the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. Since Trump took office, threats against members of Congress have increased 10-fold, with 9,625 incidents reported last year. The FBI has tripled its domestic terrorism budget, and the U.S. Justice Department has created task forces to investigate the intimidation of public officials. A man steeped in MAGA rhetoric and QAnon online conspiracy theories recently broke into the San Francisco home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hoping to cripple her with a hammer; when she was not there, he fractured her husband's skull. In the past year, right-wing militia members in Michigan were convicted of plotting to kidnap the Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and an armed man was arrested outside Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's home. An armed Trump supporter was killed in August after he tried to shoot his way into an FBI office in Cincinnati. "I wouldn't be surprised if a senator or House member were killed," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "What started with abusive phone calls is now translating into active threats of violence and real violence."

Who's committing the violence?

There are threats and acts of violence from the Left, but evidence shows that most perpetrators are right-wing extremists. Of more than 440 extremism-linked murders in the past decade, more than three-quarters were committed by right-wing extremists or white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Last year 26 of 29 political homicides were committed by right-wing extremists. Since 2015, right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots and attacks, compared with 66 for left-wing extremists, according to a study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A University of Maryland study of political violence since 1948 found that, despite famous attacks in the 1960s and '70s from left-wing radicals such as the Weather Underground, right-wing violence was nearly twice as prevalent. The deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history came in 1995, when right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people. On Jan. 6, 2021, a mob of hundreds of Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol to try to stop the certification of Joe Biden's victory, injuring more than 110 police officers and chasing lawmakers into hiding.

What about left-wing violence?

It occurs, though less frequently. In 2017, a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders opened fire at a GOP congressional baseball practice, gravely wounding Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana. The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in response to a police officer's murder of George Floyd were mostly peaceful, but arson, looting, and vandalism in several cities caused an estimated $2 billion in damage. The far-left antifa movement has engaged in violent confrontations with police and right-wing groups, especially in Portland, Oregon, where an antifa activist killed a Trump supporter in 2020.

Who's being targeted?

Officials at all levels of government. A Seattle man was charged with showing up at Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal's house with a handgun in July, shouting threats and profanities. Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Florida received nearly 500 calls in 2018 from a man threatening to kill Mast's children. The Justice Department says this year alone more than 1,000 threats have been reported against election workers. In Congress, many lawmakers are beefing up their personal security. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) has spent nearly $900,000 for his own protection, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has spent nearly $600,000. Every morning, staffers compile a folder with photos of people who've threatened Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) so she might recognize them. "I just don't know how seriously people are going to take this unless someone gets hurt," Ocasio-Cortez said. 

What have political leaders said? 

Democrats have consistently condemned perpetrators of political violence, while many Republicans have not. The attack on Pelosi's husband, for example, became the subject of cruel jokes and conspiracy theories in conservative media and among some Republican candidates and officials. After that attack, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) — a GOP pariah since voting for Trump's impeachment — told his fellow Republicans, "When you convince people that politicians are rigging elections, drink babies' blood, etc., you will get violence." Guns and threats are increasingly common in GOP ads. In one video, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) brandishes a rifle, daring President Biden to "come and take it." After Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) posted an animated video showing himself slaying Ocasio-Cortez and attacking Biden, just two Republicans in the House voted to censure him. "We are a tinderbox right now," said Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "The difference between the Right and the Left is you are getting lightning strikes on the Right. It is just happening again and again."

Public support for violence

A disturbing number of Americans now endorse the use of violence to achieve political ends. A poll last year found that 30 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement "Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country." More than 40 percent of Americans think civil war is possible within the next decade, according to a recent YouGov poll. "I fear that the country is entering a phase of history with more organized domestic civil violence than we've seen in 100 years," said Philip Zelikow, former executive director of the 9/11 commission. Scholars say the violence will only worsen if lawmakers and conservative media keep egging on extremists with talk that white Christians are being "replaced," and that Democrats are traitors and communists who steal elections. "Violent political sentiments used to be held by fringe groups that were disavowed by major political parties," said Rachel Kleinfeld, who studies polarization and violence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Now, violent viewpoints are held by mainstream members of the Right and are growing in acceptance on the Left."

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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