The 2020 election is likely to produce the most divisive campaign in modern American history. But there’s a question lurking behind it that needs to be seriously considered: Will it also be the most violent?
I’ve studied how contentious elections trigger political violence in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. For example, I spent the summer of 2012 in Ivory Coast, not long after Laurent Gbagbo rejected the results of an election. He told his supporters to fight to keep him in power. A bloody civil war ensued. He finally left power after 3,000 people were killed. For many countries, elections don’t involve just counting ballots but also counting bodies.
The United States is distinct from those cases in several crucial ways. First, though President Trump has spent the past 2½ years actively undermining the integrity of democratic institutions, America is still a broadly democratic country in which the rule of law and democratic checks remain meaningful. Second, the United States has a long-standing political culture in which immediate acceptance of election results and congratulatory phone calls from loser to winner are the expectation, not the exception. And finally, the United States lacks two significant risk factors for the outbreak of political violence: society-wide poverty and a recent history of civil wars, coups d’état or organized militia violence.
All three factors offer grounds for optimism. Still, I — and other scholars who study political violence — have grown increasingly worried about the prospects for political violence in the United States, particularly around the 2020 election. That’s because the bulwarks that protect a country from political violence can be breached if the leader of that country dehumanizes certain groups of people, targets political opponents with venomous rhetoric, explicitly encourages violence and then rejects the results of an election. Trump raises all four of those red flags — and he does so with his disciples in red hats watching every move for cues on how to behave.
Dehumanization is a political tactic that targets certain groups of people — usually racial or religious minorities — by portraying them as a less-than-human threat to the nation. “You start speaking about people in medical metaphors, saying that they’re carriers of disease. You can talk about infestations,” says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarianism at New York University.
That should sound familiar. Trump has routinely used dehumanizing language, from falsely claiming that Democrats want illegal immigrants to “infest our Country” to saying that immigrants “bring … disease,” to referring to cities with large black populations as “vermin infested.” Such rhetoric lowers the barriers to violence. It primes potential perpetrators to think of their potential victims as less than human.
Trump’s toxic rhetoric extends to his political opponents, too. He has called Democrats “vicious … Socialists” who hate America. And during the 2016 election, he told Hillary Clinton that if he won, he would put her in jail. When the leader of a country demonizes political opponents and vows retribution toward them if he wins, the risk of political violence shoots up, win or lose.
Crucially, Trump hasn’t just targeted minorities and political opponents; he has also directly encouraged violence. He promised to pay legal bills for supporters who “knock the hell” out of protesters. He made a joke about shooting migrants months before one of Trump’s disciples took it upon himself to massacre mostly Latino people in El Paso, echoing Trumpian language in his manifesto. Trump endorsed a congressman because he physically assaulted a reporter. And he shared several doctored videos that depict him beating up or injuring a media outlet or a political opponent.
It’s hardly surprising that some of his supporters took those messages as encouragement of violence. In 29 court cases (so far), an alleged perpetrator invoked Trump as a reason for their violent crime or threat of violent crime. In one case, a Trump-obsessed fanatic sent pipe bombs to Trump’s favorite Twitter targets.
Each of these factors individually makes political violence more likely. Together, they make a spike in violence all but inevitable. Such risk factors often explode around elections, when supporters are more prone to act because they fear the loss of political power. Trump supporters also baselessly fear that “socialists” who “want … crime” will create “Open Borders” to allow in nonwhite people whom Trump depicts as a disease-ridden infestation.
Political violence around elections is also more common when leaders reject the election result and claim the vote was “rigged.” With lies about voter fraud, Trump has primed roughly half of Republicans to falsely believe that illegal voting is widespread. (It’s actually vanishingly rare.) And in 2016, he said he would keep the country “in suspense" as to whether he would accept the election results. He would accept them, he said, “if I win.”
So, what happens if he loses in 2020? What if he rejects the results and says socialists who hate America rigged the election with the help of disease-ridden immigrants? That’s hardly a far-fetched scenario.
The risks of bloodshed are therefore real. If political violence spikes next year, it will be tragic. It will be shocking. But it won’t be surprising.