Ethics & Public Policy Center

Trump Is Marching Down the Road to Political Violence

Published in The Atlantic on May 20, 2021


At the beginning of last week, former President Donald Trump referred to the 2020 election as the “greatest Election Fraud in the history of our Country.” By the end of the week, he had issued a statement saying, “As our Country is being destroyed, both inside and out, the Presidential Election of 2020 will go down as THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY!”

What else is new? These are the ravings of a 74-year-old sociopath, isolated and banned from social media, living in Mar-a-Lago, where he is crashing wedding parties and delivering rambling monologues.

Or at least, that would be the right way to look at things, if not for the fact that the GOP remains fully in Trump’s thrall, with its leadership more committed than ever to spreading his foundational lies and conspiracy theories. Under Trump’s sway, the Republican Party is becoming more fanatical, venturing even further into a world of illusion.

Trump’s grip on the Republican Party was on display once again last week, when Representative Liz Cheney was ousted from her leadership post as conference chair. Her fireable offense? Refusing to remain silent in the face of Trump’s ongoing efforts to undermine our constitutional system. She wants to “relitigate the past,” it’s said, despite the fact that it is Trump, not Cheney, who is obsessing over the 2020 election.

No former president, and certainly no president defeated after only one term, has so dominated his party after he left office. So Trump’s words matter. They mattered in the lead-up to, and on the day of, the deadly attack on the Capitol on January 6. They still matter. And if the Republican Party doesn’t counteract these lies rather than indulge them, political violence will become more acceptable and more prevalent on the American right.

This assessment isn’t based on mere speculation; we know that many of the people who participated in the violent assault on the Capitol believed that they were acting patriotically, foot soldiers in the 21-century version of the American Revolution, doing what they understood their leader was asking of them. As a Washington Post story put it, “The accounts of people who said they were inspired by the president to take part in the melee inside the Capitol vividly show the impact of Trump’s months-long attack on the integrity of the 2020 election and his exhortations to supporters to ‘fight’ the results.” The Post story points out that a video clip of rioters mobbing the Capitol steps caught one man screaming at a police officer: “We were invited here! We were invited by the president of the United States!”

Jill Sanborn, the head of counterterrorism at the FBI, recently told Congress that “the FBI assesses there is an elevated threat of violence from domestic violent extremists, and some of these actors have been emboldened in the aftermath of the breach of the U.S. Capitol. We expect [that] racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, and other domestic violent extremists citing partisan political grievances will very likely pose the greatest domestic terrorism threats in 2021 and likely into 2022.”

Cheney told CNN that several Republican members of Congress had voted against impeaching Trump out of fear. “If you look at the vote to impeach, for example, there were members who told me that they were afraid for their own security—afraid, in some instances, for their lives,” she said. “And that tells you something about where we are as a country, that members of Congress aren’t able to cast votes, or feel that they can’t, because of their own security.”

Georgia Republicans who in the aftermath of the 2020 election would not go along with Trump’s false claims about election fraud in that state faced death threats, intimidation, and harassment, according to Gabriel Sterling, a Republican official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office. The home of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican, was targeted too. This week I talked with a Republican election official in Arizona, Stephen Richer, who has spoken out against what he refers to as Trump’s “unhinged” claims about election fraud in Maricopa County. (Richer says Trump’s claims are “as readily falsifiable as 2+2=5.”) He told me he has received death threats and has been forced to take measures to protect his and his family’s safety. And these examples are hardly unusual.

While the threat of domestic terrorism is growing, a recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that 39 percent of Republicans agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” That result was “a really dramatic finding,” according to Daniel Cox, director of AEI’s Survey Center on American Life. “I think any time you have a significant number of the public saying use of force can be justified in our political system, that’s pretty scary.”

Cox added this important qualifier: “We shouldn’t run out and say, ‘Oh, my goodness, 40 percent of Republicans are going to attack the Capitol.’ But under the right circumstances, if you have this worldview, then you are more inclined to act in a certain way if you are presented with that option.”

That the Republican Party’s most reliable constituency, white evangelicals, is embracing QAnon conspiracy theories at depressingly high numbers hasn’t helped matters. More than a quarter say it was “mostly” or “completely” accurate to say that Trump “has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” That share is higher than for any other faith group, NPR points out—and more than double the support for QAnon beliefs evident among Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, and non-Christians.

“As with a lot of questions in the survey, white evangelicals stand out in terms of their belief in conspiracy theories and the idea that violence can be necessary,” Cox said. “They’re far more likely to embrace all these different conspiracies.”

This is all kindling for a future conflagration, with more sticks and twigs added to the pile with every passing week.

One example: During a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing last Wednesday that was focused on the January 6 insurrection, several Republicans attempted to rewrite the history of the riots. Representative Andrew Clyde of Georgia described the lethal assault as appearing like a “normal tourist visit” to the Capitol. Another Georgia Republican, Representative Jody Hice, said, “It was Trump supporters who lost their lives that day, not Trump supporters who were taking the lives of others.” And Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona accused the Justice Department of “harassing peaceful patriots across the country,” adding, “Outright propaganda and lies are being used to unleash the national security state against law-abiding U.S. citizens, especially Trump voters.”

We’re seeing Republicans who initially reacted with horror to the riot now making their peace with it, and with the conspiracy theories that led up to it.

But here’s where things really get dangerous. The repetition of the lies not only causes tens of millions of Americans to embrace them; over time, it deforms their moral sensibility. It creates an inversion of ethics, what in philosophy is known as the “transvaluation of values,” in which lies become truth and unjust acts are seen as righteous. Believing the deceptions also becomes a form of virtue signaling, a validation of one’s loyalty to others in one’s political tribe. In this case, of course, what we’re dealing with is not just any lie; it’s a particularly destructive one, among the most dangerous a democracy can face. It erodes confidence in our elections, the rule of law, and our system of government.

The mindset that this gives rise to in MAGA world is something like this: We are victims of a monstrous injustice. Our revered leader, Donald Trump, was removed from office by illegitimate means. It was done by those who are determined to destroy us, and to destroy our country; they cheated their way to power. Nothing like this has ever happened before in American history, and we must employ every available weapon at our disposal to undo this historic abuse of power, this coordinated assault on our rights. If others won’t protect us, we will take matters into our own hands. We would prefer it not to be violent, but sometimes violence is a necessary recourse, and we are in uncharted territory. We will do what we must. After all, we are victims of “THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY.”

This is how the road to political violence is paved.

Trump himself, during his remarks before and on January 6, understood that he did not need to explicitly call for violence in order to provoke violence. If his supporters accepted the arguments he made at face value, violence became, in their minds at least, the only patriotic response.

A few of us who were lifelong Republicans—and many who were not—warned where all this would lead. More than five years ago, I pointed to the danger of “Trump’s linkage of violence, passion, anger and love of country,” adding, “His political practices are precisely what the founders feared and Lincoln warned against.” The day after his inauguration, I wrote, “A man with illiberal tendencies, a volatile personality and no internal checks is now president. This isn’t going to end well.” And it didn’t.

The trajectory of events was pretty clear then; it’s pretty clear now. The seeds that produced an armed attack against the citadel of democracy were planted years ago; they are now being tended to by MAGA true believers, by cynical and timorous Republican lawmakers, and by propagandists in the right-wing media ecosystem. The violence we have seen is likely a preview of coming attractions. Hear me, Republicans, when I say that many on the American right are growing more and more comfortable with violence as an instrument of politics, as a means to achieve their goals, as a way to defeat their perceived enemies. The warning signs are all there. For the sake of their own integrity and for the good of the country, Republicans who know better—and a lot do—need to speak out, resist the manipulation, stop living within the lie.

In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln cautioned that the nation’s “proud fabric of freedom” was endangered by social disorder and especially by mob violence. He spoke about “something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”

In describing what could deliver a crushing blow to the United States, the man who would eventually become America’s greatest president and its greatest Republican dismissed the threat of foreign powers.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” the 28-year-old Lincoln asked. “I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Things can change; parties, like individuals, can repair and reform and, in doing so, promote the common good. Admirable figures can rise from the ranks; we’ve seen that with Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, and Adam Kinzinger. But they are lonely and isolated. For now, and for those of us who have spent much of our political life in the Republican Party—who knew it was hardly flawless but who did believe in its promise and core principles—it’s painful to acknowledge that the party that Lincoln helped build now embodies the very dangers that Lincoln warned about.

Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

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