The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Republican Party’s violence problem

Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 22. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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The Republican Party has a violence problem.

Or perhaps “problem” isn’t quite the right way to put it, if that implies that there are negative political consequences for the role that violence — and more importantly, the threat of violence — plays in the party’s political identity and the way its officials encourage and channel the urges of their supporters.

There may not be negative political consequences, or if there are, then they are minor enough that the party will tolerate them, given the benefits it gains from tacitly (or not so tacitly) encouraging and even fetishizing violence as a reasonable tool to use to achieve political ends.

To see what I’m talking about, let’s take a quick tour around the day’s news.

In new audio released by Jonathan Karl of ABC News, Donald Trump is asked about his supporters chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” on Jan. 6 as they rampaged through the Capitol in search of the vice president. Trump was unconcerned, both because he thought Pence was “well-protected” and because the protesters were justified in their rage: “It’s common sense” that Pence should have attempted to overturn the results of the election so Trump could remain president, he said, so the rioters’ pursuit of Pence was understandable.

And of course, they were looking for Pence because Trump himself told them that the vice president should be the focus of their anger: As he watched rioters break into the Capitol on television, Trump tweeted that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” Ever since, Trump has tried to recast that assault not as an attack on American democracy but as a legitimate response to him losing the election.

In other news, members of the House are debating what to do about Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), who recently tweeted an animated video in which he is depicted killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Gosar’s defense is that the video was merely a symbolic representation “of a battle between lawful and unlawful policies.”

Meanwhile, in Kenosha, Wis., the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who became a hero of the right after he went to a protest with an AR-15-style rifle and killed two people, is nearing its end.

And if you’re a Republican who does so much as vote for a bipartisan bill to bring infrastructure spending to your district, you can expect death threats. The quickest way for Republican candidates to demonstrate their bona fides is by shooting guns in an ad.

The thread running through all these events and controversies is the belief that liberals are so wicked that violence and the threat of violence are reasonable responses to the possibility of them getting their way. Right along with that belief is a fantasy, that of a man (almost always a man) who rather than being an ordinary schlub at the mercy of a world in which he has no power is actually bursting with testosterone and potency, someone who can and perhaps should become a killing machine.

That’s the story of the Jan. 6 rioters, who believed they could break down doors and smash windows and the American system of government would bend to their will.

It’s Rittenhouse’s story, too: When you go to a protest with a rifle, you’ve cast yourself as a potential killer in a righteous cause, and a killer was what he became. He’s now being cheered on by all those who stockpile weapons and say our country is headed for a civil war.

And, of course, no one embodies that fantasy more than Trump himself. He may be a corpulent senior citizen who dodged the draft, but in his own mind he’s Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne, just waiting for the opportunity to display his deadly skills and save the day. After the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Trump mused that had he been on the scene, “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon,” so brave and capable is he.

His most ardent supporters absolutely love that fantasy of Trump as someone who dishes out violence to their enemies. Check out the wares sold outside Trump rallies, and you’ll see him transformed on T-shirts and posters into a muscle-bound warrior wielding a rifle; if he isn’t Photoshopped onto the glistening torso of Sylvester Stallone circa 1985, he’s riding a velociraptor while firing a gun.

There are moments when Republican politicians grow a bit uneasy at their supporters’ thirst for violence, particularly when it’s aimed at them. After Jan. 6, one Republican member of Congress wrote about a colleague who voted to overturn the election because they “feared for family members, and the danger the vote would put them in,” if they didn’t give in to the mob. The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania state Senate said last December that if she didn’t support Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s election results, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”

But before the threats turn back on them, Republicans encourage those violent impulses and apocalyptic beliefs, figuring that they can be exploited without spinning out of control. Are local election officials and school board members being driven from their jobs by death threats? If it means they’ll be replaced by Trumpist conspiracy theorists, Republicans are happy to watch it happen.

There is a continuum of tolerance and encouragement; and, to be clear, not every GOP member of Congress is a dangerous clown like Paul Gosar. But they know who their supporters are. And far from discouraging those supporters’ most savage impulses, most Republicans hope to gain politically from them.

That hope is utterly repugnant and a threat to the very idea of a civilized democracy. If only there were more evidence it would be proved wrong.