The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The risk of right-wing terrorism is rising dramatically

(Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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When Joe Biden is inaugurated in a little over a month, he’ll face an opposition that has convinced itself that the election was stolen from them, that the public health measures he encourages to get control of the coronavirus pandemic are a terrifying assault on their freedom, and that Biden and his party will literally attempt to destroy the United States.

We can’t know for certain how this era in our national life will play out. But the potential for a wave of right-wing domestic terrorism is absolutely real, and we ignore or dismiss it at our peril.

Even Republican politicians understand that the threat is moving beyond the realm of ordinary politics — primary challenges, letter-writing campaigns, the occasional angry voter at a town hall — to a place where people’s physical safety is at risk.

Consider this shocking comment from a Republican leader in the Pennsylvania state Senate, about a letter some of her colleagues sent to Congress demanding that their own state’s results in the presidential election be rejected:

Kim Ward, the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania Senate, said the president had called her to declare there was fraud in the voting. But she said she had not been shown the letter to Congress, which was pulled together hastily, before its release.
Asked if she would have signed it, she indicated that the Republican base expected party leaders to back up Mr. Trump’s claims — or to face its wrath.
“If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” she said about signing the letter, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”

Perhaps she was exaggerating, but the fact is that this is what immediately comes to the mind of a loyal Republican in the midst of an election controversy: If I don’t support Trump’s insane claims of fraud, my own party’s supporters might kill me and my family.

And why would that be a foolish thing to worry about? All over the country we’re seeing conservative rage reaching right up to the line that separates activism from violence, as they vent their feelings about both the election and public health measures meant to contain the pandemic:

  • Heavily armed protesters surrounded the home of the Michigan secretary of state, after a plot to kidnap the state’s governor was thwarted.
  • Other secretaries of state who refused to steal the election for Trump have found themselves and their families threatened.
  • A prominent supporter of the president went on TV and said that a federal official who countered Trump’s false claims about voter fraud should be “taken out and shot.”
  • In Idaho, anti-mask protesters terrorized local officials’ families.
  • Public health officials all over the country have been threatened and harassed.
  • The American right made a hero out of a teenager who went to a protest and allegedly killed two people.

The situation right now is terrifying. And in a month it’s going to get much worse.

I say that because all this is happening while Donald Trump is still president. As panicked as his supporters are about losing power, he’s still in the White House and they can delude themselves into thinking he’ll find a way to stay there.

Think about the QAnon lunatics, for instance. The core of their story is not only that Democrats run a global conspiracy of satanic pedophile sex-trafficking cannibals, but that Trump is about to take the whole thing down. Whatever moment we’re in, it’s “the calm before the storm,” the storm being the day when Trump rounds up the conspirators.

If you’ve fallen down that rabbit hole, you can tell yourself that all you have to do is wait for the president to do what he has planned all along. But what happens when he leaves the White House without having demolished the conspiracy? How many of them will conclude that the villains have taken control and violent action to dislodge them is now necessary?

You can apply the same logic to the only slightly less-deranged worldview propagated every day not just on fringe outlets like OAN and Newsmax, but much of the time on Fox News as well. If you actually believed the lie they’re telling their audiences — that our democracy has been destroyed by a sinister conspiracy bent on dismantling America, outlawing religion and rounding up anyone who dissents — then violence would seem completely appropriate.

It would not be much of a leap to imagine yourself the equivalent of a resistance fighter in a Nazi-occupied country in World War II, taking up arms in the noblest of causes.

The government must wake up to the threat of domestic terrorism before it's too late, says former Homeland Security counterterrorism analyst Daryl Johnson. (Video: The Washington Post)

They’re going to keep getting this message from conservative media, for whom rage is the fuel that drives ratings and makes money. And while some Republican officeholders are too afraid to contradict the myth of a stolen election, other elite Republicans are literally telling people they should be willing to die for Trump.

To be clear, I’m not saying a substantial portion of Republicans will decide in January that politics has failed them once and for all and the only way to achieve their ends is through terrorism. But it won’t take a substantial portion. If just 1 in 100,000 of the people who voted for Trump came to that conclusion, you’d have an army of 740 domestic terrorists. How much death and chaos could they cause with a campaign of bombings and mass shootings?

Can anyone say that once they feel the sting of Trump leaving the White House, his most ardent supporters will say, “Man, that was a bummer. Oh well, that’s democracy — we’ll just try to win next time”?

Twenty years ago we lived through an extraordinary election controversy, and in retrospect one of the most remarkable things about it was how quickly everything calmed down. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court handed George W. Bush the presidency with the most dubious of rationales, Al Gore made a gracious concession, putting the good of the country over his own ambitions.

His supporters weren’t happy about the outcome, but they did not seek to destabilize American democracy — let alone engage in acts of terrorism. They weren’t steeped in a culture of violence, and the message they got from the leaders they trusted was to maintain the system and focus on the next election.

It would be nice if we could be so lucky this time. But it’s hard to believe we will.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Who’s going to tell the GOP base that they’re being scammed?

Michael Gerson: Prominent evangelicals are directing Trump’s sinking ship. That feeds doubts about religion.

Greg Sargent: A GOP senator reveals just how deranged many in his party have become

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s Republicans have gone around the bend

Gary Abernathy: During his presidency, I defended Trump. But now his time is over.

Kathleen Parker: It’s time for the brat in the White House to make his great escape