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As Right-Wing Rhetoric Escalates, So Do Threats and Violence

The armed attack this past week on an FBI office in Ohio by a supporter of former United States President Donald Trump’s who was enraged by the bureau’s search of Trump’s private residence in Florida was one of the most disturbing episodes of right-wing political violence in recent months.

August 13, 2022 / 10:14 PM IST
US Capitol riots (Representative image: Reuters)

US Capitol riots (Representative image: Reuters)

The armed attack this past week on an FBI office in Ohio by a supporter of former United States President Donald Trump’s who was enraged by the bureau’s search of Trump’s private residence in Florida was one of the most disturbing episodes of right-wing political violence in recent months.

But it was hardly the only one.

In the year and a half since a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, threats of political violence and actual attacks have become a steady reality of American life, affecting school board officials, election workers, flight attendants, librarians and even members of Congress, often with few headlines and little reaction from politicians.

In late June, a former Marine stepped down as the grand marshal of a July 4 parade in Houston after a deluge of threats that focused on her support of transgender rights. A few weeks later, the gay mayor of an Oklahoma city quit his job after what he described as a series of “threats and attacks bordering on violence.”

Even the federal judge who authorized the warrant to search for classified material at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s beachfront home and club, became a target. On pro-Trump message boards, several threats were issued against him and his family, with one person writing, “I see a rope around his neck.”

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Although this welter of events may feel disparate, occurring at different times and places and to different types of people, scholars who study political violence point to a common thread: the heightened use of bellicose, dehumanizing and apocalyptic language, particularly by prominent figures in right-wing politics and media.

Several right-wing or Republican figures reacted to Monday’s search of Mar-a-Lago not only with demands to dismantle the FBI but with warnings that the action had triggered “war.”

“This just shows everyone what many of us have been saying for a very long time,” Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed House candidate in Washington state, said on a podcast run by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief political strategist. “We’re at war.”

On Thursday, a 42-year-old Ohio man, identified as Ricky Shiffer, showed up at the Cincinnati field office of the FBI with an AR-15-style rifle and was subsequently shot to death after firing multiple times at police during a standoff. There is no evidence of what prompted Shiffer to act. But Shiffer’s social media posts later revealed that he was full of rage about, among other things, the search at Mar-a-Lago — and that he wanted revenge.

“Violence is not (all) terrorism,” he wrote on Trump’s own social media app, Truth Social. “Kill the FBI on sight.”

Despite that threat, one day later, when right-wing media outlet Breitbart News published the warrant underlying the Mar-a-Lago search, it did not redact the names of the FBI agents on the document. Almost immediately afterward, posts on a pro-Trump chat board referred to them as “traitors.”

According to the FBI, there are now about 2,700 open domestic terrorism investigations — a number that has doubled since the spring of 2020 — and that does not include lesser but still serious incidents that do not rise to the level of federal inquiry. Last year, threats against members of Congress reached a record high of 9,600, according to data provided by the Capitol Police.

Nonetheless, it is exceptionally rare for most adults to willfully inflict harm on other people, especially for political reasons, said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the democracy, conflict and governance program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Still, Kleinfeld said, there are ways of lowering the average person’s tolerance for violence.

If political aggression is set in the context of a war, she suggested, ordinary people with no prior history of violence are more likely to accept it. Political violence can also be made more palatable by couching it as defensive action against a belligerent enemy. That is particularly true if an adversary is persistently described as irredeemably evil or less than human.

“The right, at this point, is doing all three of these things at once,” Kleinfeld said.

There is little evidence that Republicans and right-wing media figures have tempered their rhetoric, even as Congress and the Justice Department investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.

But the use of violence and violent language is not solely a problem on the right.

Some recent studies have found that a roughly equal percentage of liberals and conservatives agree that violence against the government is either “definitely” or “probably” justifiable. Others have shown that although support for political violence has doubled among Republicans since Trump took office, it has also increased — albeit more slowly — among Democrats.

There have also been some high-profile recent criminal cases involving political violence by left-leaning defendants, including one filed against a California man who was charged with attempted murder for showing up armed with a pistol, a knife and other weapons near the Maryland home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in June.

Republicans have often criticized Democrats for paying scant attention to the Kavanaugh incident and for only caring about aggression when it comes from the right. Some have pointed to a string of episodes — not all related to political violence — that reach back to 2017.

“Dangerous rhetoric from the left led to an assassination attempt on a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a shooting at a congressional baseball practice, Molotov cocktails at pregnancy centers, rampant crime in major cities and an open border. Call out the left on their threatening hyperbole, then we will talk,” said Emma Vaughn, a Republican National Committee spokesperson.

Still, the FBI has repeatedly said extremist violence from right-wing actors is one of the biggest threats confronting the bureau.

Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies political violence, has conducted a half-dozen nationwide polls since the Jan. 6 attack and has repeatedly found the same results: that between 15 million and 20 million American adults believe that violence would be justified to return Trump to office.

This kind of “community support,” Pape said, can normalize violence.

“Community support lowers the threshold at which volatile people will take action,” Pape said, “because he or she will tell themselves that people in the community actually support them. Maybe it’s only 10% of the community, but that’s still a large group.”

Pape and other violence researchers often compare conditions in the United States to those of dry forest with lots of combustible material on the ground. All it takes is a spark, like the search of Mar-a-Lago, to ignite the tinder.

With Trump facing multiple investigations even as he considers yet another run for office, there are many possible sparks that could flare up in the days and weeks ahead.

“We’re in wildfire season,” Pape said, “and will be for quite some time.”

(Author: Alan Feuer)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)
New York Times
first published: Aug 13, 2022 10:14 pm
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