The attacker who broke into President Nancy Pelosi’s home on Friday and fractured her husband’s skull is just the latest in an era of escalating political violence, largely driven by violence from the far right.
Ahead of the 2020 elections, there was growing concern about political violence perpetrated by the far right, fears that multiplied after January 6. Since then, members of Congress, judges and other public officials have faced pointed threats of violence, often from those espousing extremist ideologies.
The Pelosi attacker has subscribed to such beliefs, blogging about anti-Semitism, anti-Democratic and pro-Trump musings, pedophilia conspiracy theories and anti-white racism, as reported by the New York Times.
This line of thinking, and the way it is disseminated, are key elements of what has changed about political violence in recent years. The proliferation of social media — and its use by former President Donald Trump, his cronies, and those with far-right, extremist views — has deepened the existing polarization. In part, that’s because constant contact with extremist messages on these platforms can make individuals more likely to justify immoral actions, according to research by Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason.
All of this has contributed to the resurgence of violent threats against political leaders.
Threats against political leaders are on the rise
Threats of political violence have increased tenfold in the five years since Trump’s election, with 9,625 incidents documented in 2021, The New York Times reported. Members and election officials from both parties have reported an increase in violent threats and incidents from people who identify as Republicans and Democrats. Congressional lawmakers, in particular, have expressed concern about their safety.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or a member of the House were killed,” Susan Collins (R-ME) told The New York Times. “What started with abusive phone calls is now translating into active threats of violence and actual violence.”
In a May 2021 report, Capitol Police said federal lawmakers experienced a 107% increase in threats compared to 2020. Those threats were particularly pointed in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, when rioters – some with zip ties, weapons and intentions to kidnap or kill politicians – sought lawmakers. Pelosi was a particular target, with the insurgents calling, “Where are you, Nancy?
The attack on Pelosi’s home is one of the most recent attacks on Democrats and Democratic values, but it’s certainly not the only example. There are other disturbing incidents, like the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 over the state’s Covid-19 protocols and the series of homemade explosives that Trump fan Cesar Sayoc has sent to prominent Democrats ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. On Friday, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) thanked federal law enforcement for thwarting recent threats to his security.
A key source of this vitriol is the demonization of his political opponents. This makes people already predisposed to this type of behavior more likely to act, according to research on political violence by Nathan Kalmoe, associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, and Lilliana Mason, associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University. SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. .
Demonization makes violence more likely. my book with @LilyMasonPhD analyzes extreme partisan defamation (i.e. mechanisms of moral disengagement: threatening, evil, inhuman) and its close connection to violent party attitudes. My book on the Civil War in the United States also shows the same thing. https://t.co/bMG7aDQyc2
—Nathan Kalmoe (@NathanKalmoe) October 29, 2022
But all things being equal, there’s a reason why politically motivated violence has escalated in recent years and why it’s commonly associated with the right, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp pointed out last year. :
Sustained campaigns of political violence do not occur in a vacuum; they only become plausible when societies are torn by deep and serious divisions. 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 splintering of the right-wing violence. This is already doing concrete damage to our democracy: Several Republican lawmakers have said they would have supported [Trump’s] indictment if it did not pose a threat to the life of their family.
The coming weeks present a particular potential for violence: violence tends to increase around elections as they represent an intense competition for status and leadership. This is especially the case when the two sides in the contest have differing views that have been inflamed in the culture war.
“I think we should expect things to get worse, both before and after the midterm elections,” Mason told Vox.
Right-wing rhetoric legitimizes political violence
In the 1970s, leftist groups committed much of the politically motivated violence. Groups like the Weather Underground have attacked State Department headquarters, the Pentagon, and the United States Capitol.
While there have been some notable incidents of left-wing political violence in recent years — like the California man arrested in June after traveling to Maryland to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and the man who shot and seriously injured Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) — left-wing terror declined dramatically in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the frequency and lethality of right-wing, separatist and anti-abortion terror declined increased, a trend that has continued.
According to a 2020 briefing from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as multiple other sources, far-right terrorism is currently the most significant ideological threat in the United States. As Beauchamp has reported, the kind of violence we see today, planned or perpetrated by groups like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Proud Boys and the January 6 Rioters, is different from the terrorist attacks of decades previous ones.
If there were to be a sustained 1970s-style terrorist campaign by these militants, the results would likely be deadlier. According to UMD-START, although there were about eight times more terrorist attacks in the 1970s than between 2010 and 2016, this disparity is not reflected in the deaths (172 against 140). This is partly the result of the tactical choices of 1970s militants themselves, some of whom preferred token bombings of unoccupied buildings to actual killings.
As Mason told Vox, his research shows that people who identify as Democrats or Republicans show roughly the same levels of tolerance for violence to bring about a political end.
“These are ordinary people in ordinary communities,” she said. They won’t necessarily commit violence, but even endorsement of potential violence indicates a shift in global norms – including a growing sense that political violence is not immoral or unjustifiable.
Mason and Kalmoe found a way to end violence through “leadership rhetoric” – that if a trusted leader says the violence must stop, those prone to violence listen. Right-wing leaders, however, are less likely to speak out.
“Even with the Paul Pelosi situation,” Mason told Vox, “They say, ‘This is terrible,’ but no one says, ‘Violence is never okay. Republican leaders aren’t condemning violence as a tactic, they’re just saying, “Sorry, Paul got hurt.”
Even leaders who use ambiguous violent rhetoric—a refusal to denounce violence or coded language that does not explicitly advocate violence but subtly suggests it—influence people to pursue violent tactics for political gain. Kurt Braddock, assistant professor of public communication at American University, explained this on Twitter in May. This results in what he calls stochastic terrorism, or violent events that are not individually predictable, but occur reliably due to seeding by a trusted leader.
In Mason’s view, this type of violence goes in cycles — it’s a backlash to the progress American society has made on critical social issues like race and gender. However, just because there are patterns of progress and violence does not mean that they happen naturally and that American politics will eventually rebound. The end of these patterns will depend on whether and how Americans decide to participate in democratic institutions – or whether we can even come to understand what democracy is.
“We’ve kind of lost touch with what’s legitimate” in a democracy, Mason said. “The fact that we don’t have the same standards of democratic legitimacy between the two parties means that no rational conversation can take place if there is a dispute over the outcome.”