You know it will happen — and when the next horrible act of political violence occurs, we will have no right to feign shock and surprise.
How could we be surprised? America is overflowing with guns — studies document more guns than people – and relatively easy access to guns. The gullible and unstable are not in short supply. Societal divisions are saturated with incendiary rhetoric depicting opponents as enemies who are stealing and destroying our country, ginned up by filter-less social media feeding disinformation.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” historian Richard Hofstadter noted in his work on the paranoid style in American politics.
Consequently politically inspired violence is not new:
* Through the 1990s, and as recently as 2015, anti-abortion zealots murdered doctors, clinic employees, security guards, police officers and clinic escorts.
* In 1995, Timothy McVeigh ignited a bomb destroying the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and injuring 680 others. The bombing was revenge against the government for those killed at Waco and Ruby Ridge.
* In 2015, Dylann Roof gunned down nine Black parishioners including the senior Pastor of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. Roof was invited to join them for Bible study. He wanted to ignite a race war.
* In 2019, Patrick Crusius killed 23 people and injured two dozen at an El Paso Walmart. His racist, anti-Hispanic manifesto cited the white nationalist “Great Replacement” fear and former Pres. Trump’s language about a migrant “invasion.”
But now there is something new: The language of violence is regularly employed by politicians, and the poison is infecting the body politic, normalizing both threats and actual violence. What seemed like a quaint concern about the coarsening of our political dialogue has mushroomed into something far worse.
The most troubling example is former President Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 exhortation to march to the Capitol to “stop the steal” — a coy and thinly-veiled encouragement of mob violence. Several were killed and many injured.
Locally, there are allegations of a “campaign of harassment on social media” by Florida Rep. Randy Fine, R–Brevard, against a school board member who is seeking the protection of an injunction barring the legislator from “inciting followers to harass and threaten” her in retaliation for the board’s policy requiring masks to keep children safe from COVID-19.
Words have effects. And while violent rhetoric increasingly employed by politicians can influence a deranged disciple, it can also destroy democracy by normalizing threats and violence as political tactics. A deranged fanatic with access to a deadly weapon is a danger to life; a mob ginned up to attack political opponents — virtually or actually — is the demise of democracy.
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Think this is exaggerated fear? The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute reported that one-third of Republicans agree with the statement that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence if that’s what it takes to save the country.” Of the two-thirds of Republicans who believe the election was stolen from Trump, support for violence registers 39 percent.
Thoughtful leadership can help. Imagine the impact that Republican leadership could have had if they vigorously condemned Rep. Paul Gosar’s cartoon depicting him assassinating U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and assaulting President Joe Biden, or if they didn’t glorify the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as 1776 patriots, or if they condemned the Jan. 6 assault on Congress as a grave threat to our democracy.
But with the leadership of half our body politic content to look the other way or be complicit in violent rhetoric, it’s not clear where this is going — though it is clear that it’s going in the wrong direction.
Wisdom comes easier when history is in the rear view mirror. The demographic changes our country are experiencing has ignited white supremacists. Are these white supremacists our Brownshirts and the attacks on America’s immigrants and racial, ethnic and religious minorities our Kristallnacht?
Whether democracy survives will depend in no small part on pushing back against the rhetoric of violence and resisting the seduction to join the mob. We need to identify strategies to employ in our own community to get our country back to airing differences with mutual respect rather than the language of war against an enemy who is an existential threat to our culture and our way of life.
We have three choices: we can join the forces that are increasingly using the threat of violence and actual violence; we can sit on the sidelines watching history pass us by and our democracy teeter on the edge or we can accept the responsibility to join the fight to save our democracy.
To paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, history has its eyes on us.
Howard L. Simon served as the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida from 1997 until 2018.