The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On the campaign trail, many Republicans talk of violence

In both swing states and safe seats, GOP candidates say that liberals hate them personally and may turn rioters or a police state on people who disobey them

Attendees recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a “Save America” rally featuring former president Donald Trump at Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage on July 9. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Days before Maryland’s July 19 primary, Michael Peroutka stood up at an Italian restaurant in Rockville and imagined how a foreign enemy might attack America.

“We would expect them to make our borders porous,” Peroutka told the crowd, which had come to hear the Republicans running for state attorney general. “We would expect them to make our cities unsafe places to live. We would expect them to try to ruin our economy.” The country was “at war,” he explained, “and the enemy has co-opted members and agencies and agents of our government.”

On Tuesday, Peroutka easily dispatched a more moderate Republican to win the nomination. State Del. Dan Cox, who won Donald Trump’s endorsement after supporting the former president’s effort to subvert the 2020 election, also dispatched a Republican endorsed by the state’s popular governor, Larry Hogan.

Both candidates described a country that was not merely in trouble, but being destroyed by leaders who despise most Americans — effectively part of a civil war. In both swing states and safe seats, many Republicans say that liberals hate them personally and may turn rioters or a police state on people who disobey them.

Referring to the coronavirus and 2020 protests over police brutality, Cox told supporters at a rally last month, “We were told 14 days to bend the curve, and yet antifa was allowed to burn our police cars in the streets.” He continued: “Do you really think, with what we’re seeing — with the riots that have happened — that we should not have something to defend our families with? This is why we have the Second Amendment.”

The Post’s Erin Cox explains how the Maryland Republican primary governor's race tested former president Donald Trump’s influence. (Video: The Washington Post)

The rhetoric is bracing, if not entirely new. Liberal commentators made liberal use of the word “fascism” to describe Trump’s presidency. The baseless theory that President Barack Obama was undermining American power as a foreign agent was popular with some Republicans, including Trump, who succeeded Obama in the White House.

Many Democrats saw the backlash to Obama as specific to his race, and saw Biden as unlikely to inspire mass opposition to Trump in the presidential election. But many Republicans also portray Biden as a malevolent figure — a vessel for a hateful leftist campaign to weaken America.

“It’s purposeful,” said former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who is running in next month’s special election for the state’s sole House seat, in an interview with former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon. “It’s all about the fundamental transformation of America. You only fundamentally transform something for which you have disdain.”

That argument has been dramatized in ads that, for instance, show one armed candidate appearing to charge into the home of a political enemy, and another warning of “the mob” that threatens ordinary Americans. In many cases the candidates are brandishing firearms while threatening harm to liberals or other enemies.

Guns are all over GOP ads and social media, prompting criticism

In central Florida, U.S. Army veteran Cory Mills has run ads about his company selling tear gas that was used to quell riots in 2020. “You may have seen some of our work,” he says, introducing a montage of what are labeled “antifa,” “radical left” and “Black Lives Matter” protesters running from the gas.

In northwest Ohio, a campaign video for Republican congressional nominee J.R. Majewski shows him walking through a dilapidated factory, holding a semiautomatic weapon, warning that Democrats will “destroy our economy” with purposefully bad policies.

“Their agenda is bringing America to its knees, and I am willing to do whatever it takes,” says Majewski, who’s seeking a House seat in a district around Toledo that has been redrawn to make Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) beatable. “If I have to kick down doors, that’s just what patriots do.”

In Missouri, Republican Senate candidate Eric Greitens has issued two ads this summer in which he holds or fires weapons, vowing to go “RINO hunting” — for “Republicans in name only” — in one ad and targeting the “political establishment” in the second.

Dreading deep losses in November, some Democrats have spent money to help Republican candidates who talk this way under the theory that they will be easier to beat in November. The Democratic Governors Association spent more than $1.1 million on positive ads for Cox, as he was telling voters that they might one day have to battle antifa with their own weapons.

Candidates like Majewski, however, have won with no assistance from Democrats, aided instead by high turnout and grass-roots energy. The idea that the Biden administration’s policies are designed to fail — to raise gas prices, or increase the cost of food — is a popular campaign theme.

Pollsters have found that Americans are worried about the country sticking together; a YouGov poll released last month had a majority of both Democrats and Republicans agreeing that America would one day “cease to be a democracy.”

Republican wins since 2020, including a sweep in Virginia’s state elections and victory in a special election in June between two Hispanic candidates in South Texas, haven’t lightened the GOP mood. Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist who works with Trump-backed U.S. Senate candidates J.D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona, said that last year’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large companies was a turning point in views of the Biden administration, even after it was blocked by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

“It’s the number one thing that caused people to go from ‘maybe this is incompetence’ to ‘there’s something else going on here,’ ” Surabian said. “Like, do these people actually want a Chinese-style social credit system?”

Rick Shaftan, a conservative strategist working with Republican challengers this cycle, said that the party’s voters were nervously watching crime rates in the cities, asking whether public safety was being degraded on purpose. He also pointed to government responses to the pandemic as a reason that those voters, and their candidates, were nervous.

“People paid a lot of attention to the truckers,” said Shaftan, referring to Canadian protests against vaccine mandates that occupied Ottawa this year and briefly shut down an international bridge. “Canada’s supposed to be a democracy. … People worry: Can that happen here?”

The arrests of hundreds of rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has frequently been cited by Republican candidates as proof of a government war on its people.

In early July, at a town hall meeting in southwest Washington state, Republican congressional hopeful Joe Kent told his audience that the “phony riot” on Jan. 6 was being “weaponized against anybody who dissents against what the government is telling us,” from parents angry about public school education to people who had questioned the outcome of the 2020 election.

“These are the types of tactics that I would see in Third World countries when I was serving overseas,” Kent told the crowd gathered in a gazebo in Rochester, a town currently represented by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.). “You’d see the Praetorian Guard or the intelligence services grab the opposition and throw them in the dungeons. I never thought I’d see that in America.”

Trump himself has frequently accused President Biden of trying to ruin the country and create conflict to maintain power.

“Joe Biden helped lead his party’s vile campaign against our police officers, and then he carried the rioters’ agenda straight into the White House,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Las Vegas last month, joined by Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the GOP nominee for governor. “The streets are flowing with the blood of innocent crime victims.”

After a draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturning federal abortion rights was leaked in early May, a group calling itself Jane’s Revenge took credit for vandalism against crisis pregnancy centers, where women are discouraged from terminating their pregnancies. Those incidents quickly made it into political ads that asked why Democrats were not more strongly condemning violence.

Some Republicans also point to a California man’s alleged assassination plot against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was among the majority in Dobbs.

“Radical liberals are behaving like terrorists, calling for a summer of rage,” says a narrator in a new ad from Catholic Vote, a conservative group spending $3 million this month to target vulnerable Democratic members of the House. “An assassination attempt on a Supreme Court justice. Domestic terrorists calling it ‘open season.’ ”

Several have echoed Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author, who has argued that the rise in fentanyl deaths looks like an “intentional” result of the Biden administration’s border policies — a way for an unpopular president to “punish the people who didn’t vote for him.”

The argument is not just that Democrats disagree with conservatives, but that they despise them and hurt them on purpose. This past week, after a man attacked Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) at a rally for his gubernatorial campaign, Biden and Vice President Harris condemned the violence, as did Gov. Kathy Hochul (D).

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) was attacked while speaking at a campaign event in Fairport, N.Y., on July 21. (Video: Jeff Nichols via Storyful)

But local Republicans suggested that Democrats had effectively encouraged the attack, pointing to a Democratic news release about the rally “encouraging people to stalk” the candidate, according to one GOP county executive. Although the district attorney who let the attacker out of jail was a Zeldin supporter, the candidate and his party argued that Democratic bail overhauls, passed in 2019, had let the attacker off scot-free.

“If you love America, they hate you,” says Jim Pillen, the Republican nominee for governor of Nebraska, in one TV spot. “If you support the police, they call you racist.”

Understanding the 2022 Midterm Elections

November’s midterm elections are likely to shift the political landscape and impact what President Biden can accomplish during the remainder of his first term. Here’s what to know.

When are the midterm elections? The general election is Nov. 8, but the primary season is nearing completion, with voters selecting candidates in the New York and Florida primaries Tuesday. Here’s a complete calendar of all the primaries in 2022.

Why are the midterms important? The midterm elections determine control of Congress: The party that has the House or Senate majority gets to organize the chamber and decide what legislation Congress considers. Thirty six governors and thousands of state legislators are also on the ballot. Here’s a complete guide to the midterms.

Which seats are up for election? Every seat in the House and a third of the seats in the 100-member Senate are up for election. Dozens of House members have already announced they will be retiring from Congress instead of seeking reelection.

What is redistricting? Redistricting is the process of drawing congressional and state legislative maps to ensure everyone’s vote counts equally. As of April 25, 46 of the 50 states had settled on the boundaries for 395 of 435 U.S. House districts.

Which primaries are the most competitive? Here are the most interesting Democratic primaries and Republican primaries to watch as Republicans and Democrats try to nominate their most electable candidates.

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