Sometimes political events force us to step back in awe, or horror, or both. The (former) third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives has accused a former president of her party of employing the threat of violence as a tool of intimidation. And election officials around the country — Republican and Democratic — can attest to the results: Death threats. Racist harassment. Armed protesters at their homes.
From one perspective, this is not new. Trump has made a point of encouraging violence against protesters at his rallies (“knock the crap out of them”), excusing violence by his supporters (people "with tremendous passion and love for their country”) and generally acting like a two-bit mob boss. He publicly supported Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager charged with homicide in the killing of two people in Kenosha, Wis. (Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty.) He embraced Mark and Patricia McCloskey for brandishing guns at peaceful marchers in St. Louis. He deployed federal security forces to break heads in Lafayette Square.
If Trump has a political philosophy, one of its main tenets is toxic masculinity — the use of menace and swagger to cover his mental and moral impotence. And the mini-Trumps have taken their master’s lead. When Trump operative Stephen K. Bannon proposed that Anthony S. Fauci should be beheaded, when Trump ally Joseph diGenova said a federal cybersecurity official should be “taken out at dawn and shot,” when Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani urged Trump supporters to engage in “trial by combat,” all of this was more than paunchy, pathetic, aging White men talking smack they could never back up. It exemplified a type of politics where cruelty is the evidence of commitment, brutality is the measure of loyalty and violence is equated with power.
This approach to politics is disturbing at any time. But now it has fastened itself upon an object, a project. Rather than trying to win future elections by attracting new voters, Trump Republicans wish to reshape the electoral system to produce more favorable results. Instead of using the 2020 presidential loss as a guide for additional outreach, Trump Republicans want to ensure they can claim and enforce a victory in 2024 with essentially the same vote total as 2020 — probably the high-water mark of the Trump coalition.
In some ways, the Trump movement of authoritarian populism is forward-looking. It eternally relitigates the 2020 election as preparation for the next. Compared with the utter chaos of previous efforts, this time there seems to be a strategy at work. First, undermine Republican confidence in the electoral system and stoke the party’s sense of grievance. Second, modify state election laws to try to discourage Democratic (and particularly minority) turnout. Third, replace or intimidate state election officials who show any hints of independence or integrity.
The first goal has been achieved: In a recent poll, more than two-thirds of Republicans denied the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election as president. Results on the second goal (so far) have been mixed. Republican “reforms” have made the system marginally less fair than the status quo, but not quite as bad as some feared.
The third goal is where the threat of violence has mattered most. Officials who held the line against electoral corruption in 2020 have been worn down by threats. Some have retired or been forced out of office. State legislators who didn’t act as reliable partisans have been targeted and intimidated. All who resist Trump’s will know they will be singled out by name. They will be exposed to political jeopardy and physical peril, particularly from activists who view the right to bear arms as the right to make armed threats.
This is not a joke. This is not a myth. This is not a drill. According to a survey last year, a majority of Republicans agreed with the statement: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
Ultimately, it is not enough for political figures to ritually denounce the use of violence while amplifying the lies that lead to violence. The only way to defuse this bomb is to embrace the truth.