The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elite Republicans are now openly encouraging political violence

Former Missouri governor Eric Greitens. (David A. Lieb/AP)
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At this moment in history, Republican radicalism comes in so many forms — election subversion, draconian abortion restrictions, gun fetishism, anti-LGBTQ scapegoating — that some argue the party is moving toward a new kind of fascism. That raises complicated questions, but one of fascism’s key features is the glorification of violence as a domestic political tool.

Keep that idea in mind as you watch this new ad from Eric Greitens, a Missouri Republican running for U.S. Senate:

In a campaign ad, Senate candidate Eric Greitens (R-Mo.) carries a gun, flanked by heavily armed men, and proposes to hunt and kill "Republicans in Name Only." (Video: Eric Greitens)

With a shotgun in his hand and a pistol on his belt, Greitens accompanies soldiers busting into what appears to be a suburban home. Then he says to the camera: “Join the MAGA crew. Get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”

For the uninitiated, “RINO” is short for “Republican In Name Only,” a term that originally referred to Republicans who were too ideologically moderate for someone’s taste. Now it is used to refer to those who, no matter how ideologically conservative, are insufficiently worshipful of Donald Trump or question the more radical beliefs and tactics of the extreme wing of the party.

Politicians often use martial rhetoric; they talk a lot about “fighting” and engaging in “wars” of various types, and even the word “campaign” originally referred to armies fighting each other. But this is qualitatively different.

Greitens is not deploying some subtle metaphor here. You can even order a “RINO Hunting Permit” sticker from his website. If asked, I’m sure he would say he’s not literally advocating the hunting and killing of human beings. But he kind of is.

In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Greitens’s campaign for Missouri governor six years ago featured an ad showing him firing hundreds of rounds with a gigantic machine gun while the narrator said he was “under attack from Obama’s Democrat machine.” Greitens won that election, then resigned amid multiple scandals. The most appalling of them concerned a woman who charged that he coerced her into sex and then blackmailed her. (He admitted having an affair but denied the blackmail accusation.)

Now he’s running for Senate, trying to stand out in a field of ultra-conservative candidates. There might be a hundred Republicans who fire guns in their ads, many of whom talk about how their guns are a protection against “tyranny” — in other words, they’re ready to use them to kill police officers and military service members. But Greitens is the first to so explicitly say that members of his own party should be hunted without the slightest hint that it’s an exaggeration.

Like most nations, the United States has never been completely without political violence. It has come from many directions, though right-wing violence has been more common and more deadly, from the murder of doctors and staff members at abortion clinics to the Oklahoma City bombing.

At the moment, we’re seeing a rise in widely distributed, low-level acts of violence and intimidation directed at the right’s enemies. This will likely escalate: This year has seen a dramatic increase in threats against Pride Month events, which comes after a couple of years of near-riots at school board meetings and threats against public health officials and election administrators.

There is an undeniable connection between what the angry right-wing mob does on the ground and what it sees from the Republican elite.

And what do members of the right-wing mob see? Every day on Fox News and other conservative media outlets, they get a deluge of histrionic outrage and apocalyptic warnings about “groomers” preparing to abuse their children, about the coming genocidal campaign against White people, about antifa coming to burn down their towns, about the impending outlawing of gun ownership and Christianity and everything else they hold dear.

If you actually believed all of it, violence might seem a reasonable response, just like storming the Capitol might seem reasonable if you believed Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

Trump repeatedly fantasized about acts of violence against liberal protesters to the bloodthirsty cheers of his supporters (“Knock the crap out of them, would you?”), but the fault does not end with him. The rising tide of thuggery is validated and encouraged by Republican officeholders, who are now devoting an extraordinary amount of attention to scapegoating vulnerable people (especially transgender kids) and echoing the lies and hyperbole of the conservative media.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of two Republicans serving on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, recently shared a death threat mailed to his wife, saying the two of them and their infant son would soon be executed. “There is violence in the future,” he said.

When more of it happens, candidates such as Greitens will pretend they had nothing to do with it. They will say their ugly, violent rhetoric was just figurative — even as they wink and nod to their supporters. They’ll claim to be shocked and ask how they could possibly have known anyone would take them seriously.

But we should take them very seriously. Violence isn’t something they’re working to discourage. It has become a key part of their rhetoric and their political program. And the worse it gets, the more pleased they’ll be.