Limiting the conversation to the past four years, however, obscures broader contributors to this most recent violence. For about the past 50 years, American conservatism has profited from demonizing the federal government and mobilizing White anger. A review of some of the scholarship on the history of how the Republican Party has marshaled these forces demonstrates that the roots of what happened last week run deeper than Trump and Trumpism.
In the South, the GOP embraced segregationists
Although the South has been a Republican stronghold for decades, it was a Democratic one until the mid-1960s. In chronicling conservatism’s creation and rise within the Republican Party, Joseph E. Lowndes notes that the GOP’s early strategy to win the South rode on the growth of the region’s expanding, more politically moderate, urban middle class. Republican leaders sought to frame their party as “the party of moderation and Southern Democrats as racial extremists,” he notes.
White segregationist anger, however, rose over civil rights flash points such as Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to defend students integrating Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., and Democratic President John F. Kennedy’s similar protection of James Meredith, the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
With such acts of support for integration stalling GOP expansion in the South and engendering anger toward the Democratic Party in the region, the Republican strategy shifted to courting — as opposed to excluding — segregationists. This not only set the two parties on different civil rights courses, but it positioned them differently in their relationships to White anger and violence more broadly.
The GOP cloaked racist policies in the language of freedom
In mobilizing these forces without overtly appearing to do so, the Republican Party developed a seemingly patriotic and racially neutral language emphasizing individual freedom, property rights and state rights. Civil rights opponents viewed social and political changes — and the chief enforcer of civil rights, the federal government — as increasingly threatening. Kevin M. Kruse identifies some of these perceived threats: “The ‘right’ to select their neighbors, their employees and their children’s classmates, the ‘right’ to do as they pleased with their private property and personal businesses.”
The resulting language on protecting American freedom and American rights enabled conservatives to court and support segregation while maintaining a position of plausible deniability, especially when contrasted with the overt racism and violence of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Its vagueness and surface appeal also allowed it to resonate with broader audiences and to apply to grievances beyond desegregation.
The party and its closest supporting institutions were, and have traditionally been, careful to distance themselves from those popularly labeled as violent and extremists, while still flirting with both. As Jeffrey R. Dudas writes, the conservative intellectual and institutional architect William F. Buckley’s “definition of American conservatism proceeded according to ‘processes of exclusion’” that marginalized “conspiracy-mad denizens” and others. It did not, however, keep Buckley’s conservative intellectual outlet, the National Review, from coming “out in favor of massive resistance” to desegregation and from helping to cultivate the image of the threatening federal government.
Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run set the stage for political extremism
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) accepted his party’s presidential nomination in 1964, stating, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” These words spoke equally to those who embraced “extremism” in the fight against, as Goldwater argued, “the forces of tyranny abroad,” as well as the threat to “freedom at home” in the form of “the growing menace in our country … to personal safety, to … property, in homes, in churches, on the playgrounds, and places of business.” In both perspectives, Goldwater appears to issue a clear endorsement of the seeming necessity to abandon “moderation in the pursuit of justice.”
Although Goldwater lost the presidential race, the 1964 election signaled the South’s pivot from a Democratic to a Republican bastion. The strategy of courting White anger and targeting the federal government thus revealed its potential in the region, but Goldwater’s loss also illustrated the need to further refine the strategy. This subsequent work is evident in examples such as “law and order” rhetoric, the myth of the “welfare queen” and the “correct” understanding of rights and freedom.
Do rank-and-file Republicans consider violence a legitimate option?
In 2021, decades of refinement and use of this language have apparently had tangible effect in the broader public. As Larry M. Bartels’s recent work has shown, a majority of self-identified Republican and Republican-leaning independents “agreed that ‘The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.’ A substantial plurality (41.3%) agreed that ‘A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.’”
In stoking and mobilizing often racialized resentment, and thus flirting with its underlying violence, conservative language has long relied on implicit messaging. As such, the language is positioned not only to defend against being labeled as extreme, but it also allows conservatives to distance themselves from, and stop short of mobilizing, overt violence.
It is on these two points that Trump and his allies stumbled. Trump and other speakers Wednesday were explicit in the calls to eschew “weakness,” embrace “an opportunity today … [to] be a hero” and to “have trial by combat” with those fulfilling their duty that day to certify the election in the Capitol. Although many lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, point to these words as the match that sparked the mob, to continue the metaphor, conservatism has steadily laid the wood for the resulting fire.
Joshua C. Wilson is a professor of political science at the University of Denver. He is most recently a co-author of “Separate But Faithful: The Christian Right’s Radical Struggle to Transform Law & Legal Culture” (Oxford University Press, 2020).