On Tuesday, the city council in Richmond, Va., voted to ban firearms from public property during protests and other events. The ordinance may not hold up in court, but it’s a clear indication public officials are concerned about the rise in political confrontations and violence this year.
“When you increase tensions with firearms, it’s just not a good mix,” Gerald Smith, Richmond’s chief of police, told the council, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Sooner or later, we are going to have different groups with different opinions who square off with each other.”
Around the country, protesters and counter-protesters have clashed repeatedly this year, occasionally violently and sometimes fatally. A teenager named Kyle Rittenhouse is in custody for allegedly shooting three protesters, killing two of them, in Kenosha, Wis., last month. Last week, U.S. Marshals shot and killed Michael Forest Reinoehl, the suspect in an earlier fatal shooting of a far-right demonstrator in Portland, Ore.
Throughout the period of anti-racism protests this year, armed members of self-styled militias have appeared at demonstrations, saying they were protecting property and exercising their Second Amendment rights. The anti-police protests themselves have frequently devolved after dark into rioting and looting.
This isn’t exactly new in American politics. This is a country that survived a bloody civil war. Something that might have been fairly regular during the 19th century, however, retains the capacity to shock in the 21st century.
“Up until recently, we found any kind of violence to be shocking, somehow a threat to the broader stability of the community,” says Jeffrey Selinger, author of Embracing Dissent: Political Violence and Party Development in the United States. “We’re so far removed from violence that even a flare-up of modest proportions registers as a pretty substantial event that shapes the public conversation.”
Other countries may routinely witness violence and deaths during an election season, but it’s not something that has happened here for a long time. “We now have the potential in towns and cities across the country for pretty significant violence, with a large number of deaths,” said Steven Levitsky, a political scientist at Harvard University. “We should not be watching the political death count rise in a mature democracy like the United States.”
A new study finds evidence that the American populace is growing more tolerant of political violence. Most remain opposed to the idea, but there may be “violent partisanship among tens of millions of Americans,” write political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason.
“Fifteen percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrat agreed that the country would be better off if large numbers of opposing partisans in the public today ‘just died,’ a shockingly brutal sentiment,” they write. “Seventeen percent of Democrats and 7 percent of Republican report every wishing that someone would injure one or more politicians from the out-party.”
It’s easy for partisans to view the other side as a threat – something that might now lead to real and violent action. This year has seen everything from shoving matches to sometimes fatal shootings of protesters in places such as Albuquerque, Austin, Louisville and Shellsburg, Pa.
Rather than calling for calm, some politicians, from President Trump on down, appear to be fanning the flames. On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee released a whistleblower complaint alleging that top officials at the Department of Homeland Security have attempted to downplay the threat from white supremacists.
The willingness of the political parties to castigate the other side for violence and their supporters to cross the line into physical confrontation has many people worried that the problem will only grow heading into the election and perhaps its aftermath.
“Unfortunately, I see many reasons to expect further escalation of political violence before Election Day,” says Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossman, “and I can’t think of any reasons to expect de-escalation.”
Threats and Attacks
Politics is filled with martial metaphors, with candidates claiming they’re “under attack,” dehumanizing opponents or describing them as dangerous. Politicians do their best to appear tough and pledge to defend nervous supporters, while provoking the other side. Posing with firearms is routine. Congressman Ken Buck, who chairs the Colorado Republican Party, appeared at a fundraiser last month wearing a tee-shirt that read, "Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out."
Lately, the tone has at times grown more heated. Clay Higgins, a GOP congressman from Louisiana, posted pictures of Black protesters on Facebook and wrote, “I’d drop any 10 of you where you stand… I wouldn’t even spill my beer.” The post has been removed by Facebook. Civil rights groups are calling for Higgins to be censured.
Last fall, Moe Davis, now a Democratic nominee for Congress in North Carolina, took to Twitter to write, “When @NCGOP extremists go low, we stomp their scrawny pasty necks with our heels and once you hear the sound of a crisp snap you grind your heel hard and twist it slowly side to side for good measure.”
While politicians sometimes make and often receive threats, ordinary citizens have grown more likely to confront each other in public spaces. Trump supporters rode on trucks through downtown Portland, Ore. – already the scene of violent clashes between leftist protesters and police or federal forces – shooting paintballs and spraying mace.
“When did it become acceptable to shoot at someone because they were supporting the President of the United States?” tweeted Jean Evans, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, in response to reports of suspects shooting at a pro-Trump caravan.
Seeking to Shift Blame
Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned looting and rioting. "Violence will not bring change, it will only bring destruction,” he said. “It's wrong in every way."
Republicans have complained that Biden has not done enough, holding Democrats responsible for widespread violence around the country. “Make no mistake: These are left-wing terrorists and Joe Biden voters,” tweeted Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign. “You really can't tell where Biden's campaign ends and ANTIFA begins.”
It’s become a frequent complaint in conservative circles that mainstream media outlets have downplayed or dismissed rioting, mocking the phrase “mostly peaceful protests” when there’s been evidence of damage such as burned buildings for anyone to see. Rioting “condoned by the Democratic leadership” is the reason Vanderburgh County, Ind., Sheriff Dave Wedding gave Wednesday on Fox News for leaving the party.
Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from cities that have been plagued by violence, describing them as "anarchist jurisdictions." He has put the blame for “thuggery” on “Democratic leadership.” He has repeatedly commented on political violence in ways that sometimes seem almost celebratory – tweeting out videos of clashes and liking a tweet suggesting Kyle Rittenhouse's actions were a reason to support the president. Trump tweeted that the “big backlash” in Portland should not have been unexpected and retweeted a prediction that “citizen militias” would rise up around the country.
Trump has a long history of appearing to condone and even encourage violence. During the 2016 campaign, he called on supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters, pledging to pay any resulting legal fees. He said of one protester, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
“These people only know one thing, and that is strength,” Trump said during a campaign rally in North Carolina on Tuesday. “That’s all they know – strength. And we have strength.”
It’s All Right If My Side Does It
During Trump’s speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, he warned that “your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans, or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threatened our citizens.”
That night, protesters outside the White House placed Trump in effigy in a guillotine. Lugging guillotines to protests has become a common, although not yet frequent, habit of leftists staging protests. Following Trump’s speech, Black Lives Matter protesters surrounded and yelled epithets at Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul and his wife, who were escorted from the scene by police.
“Democrats are encouraging violence in America’s cities, calling President Trump and GOP lawmakers ‘domestic enemies,’ and using other reckless rhetoric to further divide this nation,” Lenze Morris, press secretary for the Republican State Leadership Committee, said in a statement.
American politics is becoming like some ugly, distorted funhouse mirror. Partisans see the other side as an existential threat to the American way of life, however they define that. The American Conservative recently ran a column arguing that “violence is justified to defend civil society,” while NPR gave a platform to the author of a book defending looting.
“What we’re seeing is performative violence, a kind of posturing intended for an audience, a mass audience that will be captured by cellphones,” says Selinger, a government professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. “The game is to make yourself look like the victim, but still intimidate.”
Selinger notes that political violence has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near as bad as it was in this country in earlier eras. Violence was once a common tactic of union busters, while hundreds of African-Americans were lynched as part of a campaign of intimidation, often state-sanctioned, during the Jim Crow era.
There is still a difference, as Trump has suggested, between shooting paint balls and shooting bullets. The thing about violence, however, is that it has a tendency to escalate. That may be especially true in crowds, which are notorious for loosening individual restraint.
There has already been blood and many are worried that things will get worse during the election proper, and after, if there is not a clear-cut victory in the presidential race. Trump has floated the idea of sheriffs and other law enforcement officials monitoring polling places, while the Republican Party is looking to recruit 50,000 poll watchers -- the party's first nationwide effort in decades, following the recent expiration of a consent decree after a 1981 election in New Jersey in which armed poll watchers prevented some Blacks and Hispanics from voting. At his North Carolina rally on Tuesday, Trump urged supporters to act as poll watchers to counteract "thieving and stealing and robbing" he claimed Democrats would do.
Kalmoe and Mason find that partisans are likely to reject violence if it's denounced by partisan leaders, but at the moment there's more effort at castigating the other side than trying to calm temperatures all around.
Their study points to the possibility that even the winning side may be emboldened to engage in violence. “Nine percent of Republicans and Democrats say that, in general, violence is at least occasionally acceptable,” they write. “However, when imagining an electoral loss in 2020, larger percentages of both parties approve of the use of violence – though this increase is greater for Democrats (18 percent approve) than Republicans (13 percent approve).”
Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, isn’t pleased by her own findings. “I'm having trouble writing my book on political violence,” she tweeted, “because I'm too worried about political violence.”