A large majority of Americans fear that political violence is imminent. Are we doomed to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy, or will this dire vision motivate the nation to change course and regain its sanity?
Are we, as wags put it, heading into the final season of America?
It seems fair to say that the country hasn’t been so divided since the (first?) Civil War. The more pessimistic pundits claim this is a terminal diagnosis: The fabric of our society is too damaged to be repaired. There’s too much anger, too much entrenched hatred, and too many powerful people willing to break laws, commit violence, and scrap elections to get their way. It seems inevitable, they argue, that the United States is coming apart at the seams.
This month, the Open Society Barometer, a global opinion poll by the Open Society Foundation, offers evidence that bears on this question.
Some of the findings are reassuring. Worldwide, overwhelming majorities of people still desire to live in a democracy and value human rights as a force for good. Despite the clamor of the culture war, only a tiny minority opposes rights for migrants, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups. The issues that people rank as their biggest concerns, like climate change and inequality, are real and legitimate.
On the other hand, there’s a small but non-trivial faction that pines for authoritarian rule. And while most people support democracy, there’s widespread skepticism about whether democratic states can deliver on their promises. It’s not surprising, in an age of polarization and collapsing trust, that we’re increasingly cynical about whether elected officials truly represent the public, whether they can deliver on their promises or even want to.
Most worrisome is that, in many countries, majorities of people agreed with the statement, “I fear that political unrest in my country could lead to violence in the next year.” In the U.S., a shocking 67% agreed with this, more than in Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, Russia or China.
You could interpret this number in several ways. The easiest way would be to dismiss it as mere negativity bias, similar to the way that majorities of people wrongly believe that crime is rising every year. However, countering this, you could argue that people are simply going by recent experience. In the past few years, there has been violence sparked by political unrest all over the world: the January 6 insurrection in the U.S., the yellow vest protests in France, the far-right assault on the Brazilian seat of government, and more.
It’s also ambiguous whether people’s agreement with this statement indicates their endorsement of violence—as in, “My country’s been taken over by a traitorous cabal and we have to reclaim it by violent revolution”—or disapproval of violence but fear that it could happen regardless—as in, “I don’t want violence, but you can’t trust what those treacherous bastards on the other side might try.”
Mitt Romney stands alone
One politician who has a firsthand answer to this question is Mitt Romney. In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins has published an astoundingly candid interview with Romney, who’s become a fierce critic of Donald Trump.
It’s more than a little ironic that Romney—the say-anything candidate, the one who signed the first version of Obamacare as governor of Massachusetts and then campaigned against his own idea when running for president—has morphed into the only Republican with principles.
He’s disgusted by Trump’s corruption and ignorance. Even more, he’s disgusted with his fellow Republicans who agreed with him in private but abased themselves to defend Trump in public—even after the January 6 insurrection that could have killed them. Romney stands out for being the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial.
However, he hasn’t gained anything from it. On the contrary, he torpedoed his own political career:
In spring 2021, Romney was invited to speak at the Utah Republican Party convention, in West Valley City. Suspecting that some in the crowd might boo him, he came up with a little joke to defuse the tension. As soon as he went onstage, he’d ask the crowd of partisans, “What do you think of President Biden’s first 100 days?” When they booed in response, he’d say, “I hope you got that out of your system!”
But when Romney took the stage, he quickly realized that he’d underestimated the level of vitriol awaiting him. The heckling and booing were so loud and sustained that he could barely get a word out. As he labored to push through his prepared remarks, he became fixated on a red-faced woman in the front row who was furiously screaming at him while her child stood by her side.
Unsurprisingly, having become an object of hate in his own party, Romney is retiring from the Senate. But he leaves us with this breathtaking line:
“A very large portion of my party,” he told me one day, “really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”
Bedecked in the iconography of violence
Mitt Romney is out of step with his own party, and another report shows just how out of step. Not only has the Right fully embraced Trump’s lawlessness and bigotry, among certain quarters, there’s a hunger for bloodshed. They’ve bedecked themselves in the rhetoric and iconography of violence, as Katherine Stewart writes:
The first thing I noticed at the latest stop on the ReAwaken America Tour in Las Vegas in mid-August was that the T-shirts are getting nastier. “Size Matters” blared one man’s shirt over enlarged images of bullets of various calibers. “It’s RINO Season,” read another, with an image of Trump carrying a long gun. Another man’s T-shirt featured dozens of white male soldiers and the words “Diversity is Destruction” across the bottom. There was the old standby, “God, Guns, and Trump.” And then there was “BLITZKRIEG.”
…The Las Vegas conference was the third such event I attended in person, and it was by a significant measure the most bloodthirsty. The rhetoric coming from the podium was even more violent than the slogans on the T-shirts.
“When [Anthony Fauci] is convicted after a short and fast but thorough trial, he will hang from a length of thick rope,” said the far-right personality Stew Peters. “When [Hunter Biden] is convicted … he will get … Death!” The audience of several thousand roared their approval.
… Arguing for the “restoration of the rightful president of America,” he said, “what we want [is] Nuremburg trials 2.0.” “All we need is a body of water, a length of rope, and a heavy millstone…. We are going to see extreme accountability. Natural accountability. Permanent accountability with extreme prejudice.”“The Right-Wing Conspiracy-Fest Is More Openly Bloodthirsty Than Before.” Katherine Stewart, The New Republic, 13 September 2023.
This sounds alarming, and it is. We shouldn’t dismiss these calls for bloodshed as mere posturing or assume they’ll never translate into action. However, we should keep them in their proper context.
The Right fetishizes weapons and loves to cosplay as macho tough guys. However, wearing a T-shirt is a long way from actively being willing to commit violence against a fellow human being. When push comes to shove, most of these people are nothing but keyboard warriors. They’ll send death threats from a distance, but that’s the extent of their willingness to commit crimes.
Although America still suffers every day from the bloody plague of mass shootings, there hasn’t been anything like what we might call organized political violence aimed at the Biden administration. There haven’t been any bombings, or assassinations, or other major acts of terrorism intended to prevent Democrats from taking power or governing.
January 6 was the obvious exception, but it’s the exception that proves the rule. The insurrectionists, for the most part, didn’t have a real plan. When they broke into the Capitol, they did nothing but childish looting and petty vandalism. They seemed as surprised by their own success as the rest of us. And the prosecution of the insurrectionists, especially the long prison sentences for the ringleaders, seems to have thrown cold water on the Right’s ardor for violence.
Donald Trump has been hinting his hardest, but his supporters have been notably reluctant to try rescuing him from prosecution by force. There wasn’t even much of a protest at the courthouses when he was indicted.
A cold civil war
It’s not likely that we’re headed for a new civil war in the sense of armies clashing in open combat. But it’s plausible that the US will suffer, and is already suffering, what we might call a “cold” civil war.
There will be more death threats and attempts to intimidate officeholders and election workers. There will be more acts of stochastic terrorism, as a constant drumbeat of violent rhetoric pushes disturbed people over the edge. There will be more random shootings, hate crimes and other outbreaks of violence, some of it politically motivated.
There will also be more Republican “lawfare”—trying to subvert the legal mechanisms of society and bend them to their own ends—like voter suppression laws, drummed-up investigations of political opponents, and pressuring legislatures to nullify elections that don’t go their way.
When Donald Trump dies, that will be the real test of whether this fascist fever cools. The faction of Republicans champing at the bit for violence is devoted to him, and him alone, with the fervor of religious fanatics following their messiah. He has no heir apparent, and so far, no other politician has shown the ability to capture his audience. When he passes from the scene, it’s possible that his cult will become rudderless, and will dissipate or splinter into infighting. The movement he founded has imperiled American democracy and America itself, but it may not survive him.