The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a false narrative about Republicans being hunted took root

The danger of the rhetoric should be obvious

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) talks to reporters before former president Donald Trump speaks at a “Save America” rally in Warren, Mich. on Saturday. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images)

It is useful, when considering a dubious claim made by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), to recall her lengthy history with such comments. This is the candidate who rose to national attention in 2020 for her embrace of QAnon, who has spread I-know-better-than-you claims about 9/11 and the 2012 mass shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., and, perhaps most infamously, suggested that wildfires were caused intentionally by a space-based laser.

But just because Greene is demonstrably credulous (particularly when it’s useful for impugning her perceived opponents) does not mean that any new claims should be dismissed as unimportant. Her position as a member of Congress and her national profile adds both weight and distance to her commentary. More importantly, her assertions are generally things that she’s picked up from the right-wing information universe, meaning that she is, in fact, speaking for a large population of Americans when she says what she says, however obviously false.

As when, this weekend, she claimed that Democrats want to kill Republicans.

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Greene was speaking at a rally in Michigan headlined by former president Donald Trump, itself a reflection of the extent to which her rhetoric has been empowered by her election to the House. She began by articulating now-familiar claims about the way in which the legal system had been deployed against the political right. Then she went further.

“I’m not going to mince words with you all,” Greene said. “Democrats want Republicans dead, and they’ve already started the killings.”

She gave two purported examples. One was the young man run over and killed in North Dakota by, as she framed it, “a Democrat driver who confessed to killing the teenager simply because he was a Republican.” The other was a woman in Michigan who was shot while “advocating for the unborn,” as Greene put it.

“Joe Biden has declared every freedom-loving American an enemy of the state,” she added.

If we quickly work backward, we see how poorly predicated all of this is.

In a speech last month, President Biden decried the views of Trump’s most fervent supporters — the ones who reject election results or play down the threat posed by rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. People like Greene, in other words. But since it’s perpetually useful for members of the right’s political and media leadership to cast criticisms of a subset of the group as a criticism of whole group, Biden’s comments become an attack on “every freedom-loving American.”

The idea that these “enemies of the state,” meanwhile, is pinned to the two acts of violence Greene cites — an appeal to anecdotes that should send up warning flags for any observer. Particularly when considering the actual cases.

The North Dakota incident has been a point of focus on the right for a week or two, given the intoxicated driver’s assertion that the teenager was a “Republican extremist.” Police and witnesses say there was no political argument prior to the incident.

The shooting in Michigan, meanwhile, is disputed. The shooter claims it was an accident. More to the point, though, voting records show only one person matching the shooter’s name and age in the county where it occurred; that person has consistently voted in Republican primaries since at least 2014. (Michigan doesn’t have registration by party.) Then there’s the detail that the victim wasn’t actually killed.

This isn’t much to hang a “Democrats want to kill us” message on, though, again, Greene has gone further with less. But what she’s doing is tapping into and amplifying the evolving sense of victimization on the right, one that’s regularly stoked within the right-wing universe.

When protests focused on racial justice erupted in the late spring of 2020, conservative media outlets repeatedly exaggerated the scale of vandalism and violence that occasionally followed. There’s a great deal of scoffing at the idea that most of those protests were peaceful, though they were. Outlets like Fox News recycled footage of riots and looting for weeks to suggest that wide-scale violence extended deep into the summer. There was an election looming, of course, and Trump was heavily invested in suggesting that Biden’s election would cause crime to escalate.

This was about the point at which right-wing cartoonist Scott Adams claimed that a Biden election would mean that “there’s a good chance you will be dead within the year.”

“Republicans,” he continued, “will be hunted.” Again, Adams wasn’t driving concerns but reflecting them; there was a palpable sense on the right that the left was violent, uncontrolled and coming after them.

Part of this derives from a sense, particularly among Republicans, that White Christians face unusual levels of discrimination. Calls for the country to recognize systemic racism, to uproot often subtle forms of discrimination and to address ways in which race and class can provide advantage are seen as calls not to remove limits or elevate some people but instead as calls to diminish the group that’s long held the most power in the country. Massive protests focused on how Black people are treated by law enforcement were viewed as a threat to a status quo to which many on the right don’t object. Law enforcement is to be defended — until it is perceived as posing a risk to them.

Since Biden took office, we’ve seen this insecurity manifest in a number of ways. The idea that “cancel culture” or “wokeism” is somehow a form of fascism aimed at controlling the right. That encouraging people to vote when they might cast legal votes for Democrats is dangerous. That the riot at the Capitol was excusable in the context of the 2020 protests and that those arrested and detained are being targeted for their political views and not for their actions.

Biden has drawn attention to the threat posed by domestic extremists, a pool of people that often includes far-right actors. In fact, the government has been warning about this risk since the Trump administration, both in the abstract and focused on specific ideologies.

But this, again, is often wildly overblown. A Justice Department memo reiterating that federal law enforcement would address threats of violence or intimidation targeting school employees — a response, in part, to protests that centered on complaints about how race was being taught in schools — was conflated with a separate document to suggest that the government had called parents expressing concerns “terrorists.” Fox News made this claim hundreds of times, but it wasn’t true (as a federal judge recently made clear).

Scott Adams has sought to rationalize his “hunted” claims by, among other things, pointing to overheated anecdotes and obviously warranted investigations into right-wing figures. The idea that there’s an actual left-wing threat to Republicans is hard to justify based on anything more concrete than feelings — which, of course, is the jurisdiction from which the purported threat first emerged.

Much of this is rooted in the wide partisan gap that exists in the United States. Pew Research Center analysis shows that 6 in 10 Republicans have a “very unfavorable” view of the Democratic Party; just over half of Democrats view the GOP the same way. Republicans and Democrats see each other as dishonest and immoral, but Republicans add that Democrats are “lazy.” The divide is often literal, too. In 2020, Pew found that 4 in 10 supporters of Biden and Trump had no close friends supporting the other candidate. Three-quarters had, at most, “a few” who did.

Republicans like Greene feel as though they are under attack, in part because the United States is changing in ways that make them uncomfortable. The rhetoric around this change was conflated with physical danger in 2020 and proved potent. It’s been amplified since, despite the stark dearth of examples at hand. But since the partisan divide is so wide, it’s hard to counteract.

Consider, though, what happens when someone comes to believe that their political opponents literally want them dead. Consider how that might color their reaction to an incident in which they perceive a threat.

This is useful rhetoric for Trump and Greene and Fox News to get people engaged. It is also obviously and immediately dangerous itself.

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