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Culture of Threat: Monitoring the GOP's Normalization of Violence
An anchor on the One America News Network calls for the execution of "tens of thousands" of "traitors" who stole the election from Trump. A sitting Congress member, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), tells Americans that they "have an obligation to use" the Second Amendment, which is not about recreation but "the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government if that becomes necessary." Lara Trump, former president Donald Trump's daughter-in-law, suggests that people who live on the border with Mexico "arm up and get guns and be ready...and maybe they’re going to have to start taking matters into their own hands."
If you've noticed an uptick in violent rhetoric among the GOP and its propagandists, you're not alone. The Jan. 6 coup attempt failed as an operation intended to keep Trump in office by illegal means, but it showed Republican constituencies the potential of violence as a path to power. Over the next years, the threat and reality of violence will likely be integral to the GOP's bid to transform America into an electoral autocracy -- a system in which the voting process is manipulated so the ruling party can remain continuously in office.
This culture of violence and threat builds on histories of racial persecution and on policing used as an instrument of terror against non-whites. When the everyday murder of one group has been normalized, it is easier for the public to accept state-sponsored violence around political events, like elections, as necessary to "save the country." Tellingly, the participants in the Jan. coup attempt, which was billed as just this kind of patriotic act, included 57 local and state GOP officials and at least 52 active and retired military, law enforcement, and government personnel.
The culture of threat is also facilitated by a tolerance for the activities of extremist groups: even a militia march on the Michigan statehouse in May 2020 didn't overly alarm many. And it builds on the consequences of allowing civilians to own hundreds of millions of lethal weapons. The devaluing of human life and the desensitization to harm and loss that come with mass shootings (2020 saw 611 such events in the U.S., a 47% jump from 2019) produce the ideal public for an authoritarian society.
America is prepared for the advent of a politics that depends on force. Here are two sectors of society that will be particularly vulnerable to violence in the coming years.
When the goal is to engineer victories at any cost, anyone involved with elections can be in danger. Across the nation, election workers whose opinions don't line up with GOP propaganda are quitting after being subjected to intimidation tactics. This piece by Marc Elias suggests some remedies to protect them and the integrity of our elections.
Polling places can be dangerous places in authoritarian states for election workers and voters alike. The 40 bills the GOP has introduced in 20 states in 2021 would expand the powers of poll watchers. These individuals would have the right to be armed to the teeth in many states, maximizing their intimidation value. In Texas and other states, poll watchers could stand close enough to "see and hear" voters and election officials. Another proposed Texas bill would allow poll watchers to enter the voter's car during curbside voting, as long as another voter is present and the car holds more than five people.
Would you like to be photographed or videotaped at your polling place by a poll watcher? Nine other GOP bills intend to make that legal too.
Serving as an elected official will also become more dangerous. Threats against members of Congress are up 107% in 2021 as compared with 2020. This is in part a consequence of the coup attempt, which broke many taboos in this area. Those searching to harm then-Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi clearly felt protected, which is why they photographed and videotaped themselves.
It also reflects the erosion of the democratic idea that a political opposition has legitimacy. During the 2016 campaign, Trump and Republican officials didn't just contest Hillary Clinton's ideas, but also her right to circulate in society ("Lock her up!" became the favorite chant at Trump rallies) and even exist. GOP representative Al Baldasaro, R-NH, and others called for Clinton to be executed by firing squad, and Trump suggested that "Second Amendment People" could act against her.
Trump also moved to squash opposition within the GOP. By his second impeachment trial in February 2021, questioning the leader cult had become dangerous, even though the leader was no longer in office. "Our expectation is that somebody may try to kill us," said Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who voted to impeach Trump, explaining why he was buying body armor.
We will see more threats made against authoritarians' usual targets, like journalists, as well as against anyone who denounces the lawlessness of the GOP and its allies. I am likely not alone in perceiving an increase in threatening messages designed to frighten the recipient and encourage her to self-censor, so the truth remains veiled.
For a century, authoritarians have used propaganda and corruption to get their people to see violence differently --- as a civic duty and as a righteous course of action when the nation is threatened. And so it is with the Republican party, which has decreed that nothing is off the table, including and especially violence, in pursuit of the goal of getting back into power and staying there for good. "That's what we fucking need to have, 30,000 guns up here," said one participant on Jan. 6, frustrated that he wasn’t entering the Capitol more rapidly. "Next trip," someone answered him.