The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Political violence is in our DNA. Can we avoid more of it?

An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of then-President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
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Political violence has always been contagious — inspiring copycats, encouraging ideologues to embrace the tactics of their opponents and spawning a crushing spiral of tit-for-tat escalation.

From Bleeding Kansas to Bloody Sunday, from the Colfax Massacre to Charlottesville, political violence has long been a feature of the American experience.

Donald Trump didn’t just incite an insurrection last January as he clung to power. During the years leading up to the attack on the Capitol, he helped usher in a new era of militancy. The number of threats aimed at members of Congress rose from fewer than 4,000 in 2017 to 9,600 in 2021. The FBI says there are about 2,700 open investigations into violent extremism at home, up from 1,000 in the spring of 2020. The latest Washington Post-University of Maryland poll shows 34 percent of Americans say violent action against the government is sometimes justified, more than double what surveys showed in 2010.

You can draw a fairly straight line back from the Capitol rioters, some of whom paraded with Confederate flags, to the Southerners who pummeled abolitionists on the floor of the House and Senate during the decades before the Civil War. The members of the 2021 mob were the descendants — spiritually, if not literally — of Know-Nothings and Klansmen.

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This legacy is not to excuse the behavior of those who stormed the Capitol at Trump’s behest, but it is a reminder that we’ve never outgrown our own brutish tendencies. Pretending Jan. 6 was a singular event risks a dangerous complacency.

The Capitol itself has long been a popular focal point for violence. In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the House gallery and wounded five congressmen. In 1971, in opposition to the Vietnam War, the Weather Underground detonated a bomb in the men’s bathroom underneath the Senate chamber, saying the goal was to “freak out the warmongers.” In 1983, self-described communists exploded a bomb under a bench outside the Senate majority leader’s office, purportedly in retaliation for U.S. intervention in Grenada and Lebanon.

The Capitol Police formed in 1828 after President John Quincy Adams’s son was punched in the Rotunda. The first assassination attempt on a sitting president happened at the Capitol in 1835 as Andrew Jackson left a congressman’s funeral. The revolver misfired.

That was the start of an especially violent stretch on Capitol Hill. Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman documented more than 70 incidents of violence between lawmakers from 1830 to 1860, from duels to brawls on the House floor. Most notoriously, in 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina hit Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane at least a dozen times — nearly killing him — over a speech decrying the conduct of the slavocracy.

Political violence cooled a bit following the Civil War but increased again as Northern voters lost the will to enforce civil rights for African Americans. After the contested 1876 election, President Ulysses S. Grant mobilized the military to defend the Capitol if it was besieged by supporters of Samuel J. Tilden.

In a compromise, Republicans kept the White House in exchange for ending Reconstruction. This paved the way for Jim Crow laws and another century of terrorism against Blacks. The NAACP documented nearly 5,000 lynchings from the 1880s to the 1960s.

The civil rights movement led to a new era of violence against African Americans, which helped prompt new federal protections, which again led to backlash.

But the notion that our contemporary era has been mostly free of political violence is incorrect; if anything, violence has increased of late. In 2017, a gunman who hated Trump deliberately targeted Republican congressmen as they practiced for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, wounding the House majority whip before dying in a firefight with police. On the eve of the 2018 midterms, a Trump super fan mailed pipe bombs to 16 people he believed had treated the president unfairly. Authorities announced they’d foiled a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) a few months after Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

Last August, a North Carolina man demanding Trump be returned to power parked outside the Library of Congress and claimed his pickup truck was full of explosives. Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) was recently censured by the House on a mostly party-line vote for posting an animated video depicting himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

The Justice Department estimates that as many as 2,500 people could ultimately be charged with federal crimes related to the attack on the Capitol; so far, only 704 have faced prosecution. Attorney General Merrick Garland asked Wednesday for the public’s help in identifying hundreds of suspects who were photographed but haven’t been arrested, including about 250 who are believed to have assaulted police officers. Especially worrisome is that no one has been apprehended for placing pipe bombs with timers outside the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee.

Our tradition of political violence is in our DNA. And it is unlikely to end in this recent and deadly chapter.