The uptick in violent rhetoric among the GOP and its propagandists previews America’s turbulent future. The Jan. 6 attack failed to keep Trump in office, but it showed Republican constituencies the potential of violence as a path to power. The history of authoritarianism suggests that the threat and reality of violence are likely to be integral to the right’s bid to transform the country into an electoral autocracy — a system in which the voting process is manipulated so the ruling party can remain continuously in office.
This Republican culture of violence and threat builds on histories of racial persecution and on policing used as an instrument of terror against non-Whites. Habituation to such violence, reinforced by the presentation of non-Whites as an existential threat to the future of America (as in the “great replacement theory" that Tucker Carlson has referenced on Fox News) makes it easier for the public to accept violence around political events, like elections, as necessary to “save the country.” Tellingly, the participants in the January coup attempt, which was billed as just this kind of patriotic act, included 57 local and state GOP officials and at least 52 active and retired military, law enforcement, and government personnel.
The culture of threat is also facilitated by a tolerance for the activities of extremist groups: Even a militia march on the Michigan Capitol in May 2020 didn’t overly alarm many. And it builds on the consequences of allowing civilians to own hundreds of millions of lethal weapons. The devaluing of human life and the desensitization to harm and loss that come with mass shootings (2020 saw 611 such events in the United States, a 47 percent jump from 2019) produce the ideal public for an authoritarian society.
In short, America is already prepared for the advent of a politics that depends on force. Our whole electoral system — from those who work at the polls to those who visit them to those who are elected — will be particularly vulnerable to violence in the coming years.
When the goal is to engineer victories at any cost, anyone involved with elections can be in danger. Across the nation, election workers are quitting after being subjected to intimidation tactics. It will be important to find ways to protect them — for instance, by making such harassment a federal offense, as Congress does for many federal government officials — if we hope to preserve the integrity of our elections.
Polling places can be threatening environments for voters in authoritarian states, as well, and the GOP seems to want to make voting a fraught experience in America. Republicans have introduced 40 bills in 20 states in 2021 that expand the powers of poll watchers. In accordance with GOP-supported gun rights laws, these individuals would have the right to be heavily armed in many states, maximizing their intimidation value. In Texas and other states, poll watchers could stand close enough to “see and hear” voters and election officials. Another proposed Texas bill, now in committee, would allow poll watchers to enter the voter’s car during curbside voting, as long as another voter is present and the car holds more than five people.
Serving as an elected official also will become more dangerous. Threats against members of Congress are up 107 percent in 2021 as compared with 2020. The Jan. 6 insurrection broke many taboos in this area. Those searching to harm Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi clearly felt as if they could act with impunity, which is why they photographed and videotaped themselves storming the building.
The increase in threats against politicians also reflects the erosion of the democratic idea that the political opposition is legitimate. During the 2016 campaign, Trump and Republican officials didn't just contest Hillary Clinton's ideas, but also her right to exist in society, as “Lock her up!” became the favorite chant at Trump rallies. New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro and others called for Clinton to be executed by firing squad, and Trump suggested that “Second Amendment People” could act against her.
Trump also moved to squash opposition within the GOP. By his second impeachment trial in February, questioning the cult leader had become dangerous, even though the leader was no longer in office. “Our expectation is that somebody may try to kill us,” said Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who voted to impeach Trump, explaining why he was buying body armor.
Authoritarians use propaganda and corruption to get their people to see violence differently — as a civic duty and a righteous course of action when the nation is threatened. And so it is today with the Republican Party, many members of which have decreed that nothing is off the table, including violence, in pursuit of the goal of getting back into power and staying there for good. That is one lesson of Jan. 6 and the party’s resolute defense of it. “That’s what we f-----g need to have, 30,000 guns up here,” said one participant on that day, frustrated that he wasn’t entering the Capitol more rapidly. “Next trip,” someone answered him.