Why Does the Far Right Hold a Near-Monopoly on Political Violence?

Why Does the Far Right Hold a Near-Monopoly on Political Violence?

Why Does the Far Right Hold a Near-Monopoly on Political Violence?

Studies show that most people across the political spectrum abhor it. So what might explain the disparity?


In the wake of the mass shooting in suburban Virginia last week that left House majority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and three others wounded, conservatives have been furiously waving the bloody shirt. With left-wing hate filling half the screen, Sean Hannity blamed Democrats, saying they “dehumanize Republicans and paint them as monsters.” Tucker Carlson claimed that “some on the hard left” support political violence because it “could lead to the dissolution of a country they despise.” Others have blamed seemingly anything even vaguely identified with liberalism for inciting the violence—from Madonna to MSNBC to Shakespeare in the Park.

This is all a truly remarkable example of projection. In the wake of the shooting, Erick Erickson wrote a piece titled, “The Violence is Only Getting Started,” as if three innocent people hadn’t been brutally murdered by white supremacists in two separate incidents in just the past month.

In the real world, since the end of the Vietnam era, the overwhelming majority of serious political violence—not counting vandalism or punches thrown at protests, but violence with lethal intent—has come from the fringes of the right. Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project says that “if you go back to the 1960s, you see all kinds of left-wing terrorism, but since then it’s been exceedingly rare.” She notes that eco- and animal-rights extremists caused extensive property damage in the 1990s, but didn’t target people.

Meanwhile, says Beirich, “right-wing domestic terrorism has been common throughout that period, going back to groups like to The Order, which assassinated [liberal talk-radio host] Alan Berg [in 1984] right through to today.” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told NPR that “when you look at murders committed by domestic extremists in the United States of all types, right-wing extremists are responsible for about 74 percent of those murders.” The actual share is higher still, as violence committed by ultraconservative Islamic supremacists isn’t included in tallies of “right-wing extremism.”

A 2015 survey of law-enforcement agencies conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum and the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found that the police rate antigovernment extremists as a greater threat than reactionary Islamists. The authors wrote that “right-wing violence appears consistently greater than violence by Muslim extremists in the United States since 9/11, according to multiple definitions in multiple datasets.” According to the Department of Homeland Security, “Sovereign Citizens”—fringe antigovernmentalists—launched 24 violent attacks from 2010 through 2014, mostly against law enforcement personnel. When Robert Dear shot and killed three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic in 2015, it became the latest in a series of bloody attacks on abortion providers dating back to Roe v. Wade in 1973. In the 30 years that followed that landmark decision, providers and clinics were targeted in more than 300 acts of violence, including arson, bombings, and assassinations, according to a study by the Rand Corporation.

But while the extreme right has held a near-monopoly on political violence since the 1980s, conservatives and Republicans are no more likely to say that using force to achieve one’s political goals is justified than are liberals and Democrats. That’s the conclusion of a study conducted by Nathan Kalmoe, a professor of political communication at the University of Louisiana. In 2010, he asked respondents whether they agreed that various violent tactics were acceptable. Kalmoe found that less than 3 percent of the population strongly agreed that “sometimes the only way to stop bad government is with physical force,” or that “some of the problems citizens have with government could be fixed with a few well-aimed bullets.” He says that while “there were tiny [partisan] variations on these specific items,” they weren’t “statistically significant on average.”

Ideology alone isn’t a significant risk factor for violence. “There’s a much stronger factor of individual personality traits that predispose people to be more aggressive in their everyday lives,” Kalmoe says, “and we see that playing out with people who engage in political violence.” Mass shooters are often found to have had histories of domestic violence, and that was true for James Hodgkinson, the shooter who attacked the congressional baseball practice in Virginia. Kalmoe says, “we often see that violent individuals have a history of violence in their personal lives. People who are abusive, or who have run afoul of the law in other ways, are more likely to endorse violence.”

Political animosity is similarly bipartisan. According to Pew, roughly the same number of Republicans and Democrats—around half—say they feel anger and fear toward the opposing party.

Which raises an important question: If red and blue America fear and loathe one another equally, and a similar number believe that political violence is acceptable, then why is there so much more of it on the fringes of the right?

Part of the answer lies in a clear difference between right and left: For the past 40 years, Republicans, parroting the gun-rights movement, have actively promoted the idea that firearms are a vital bulwark against government tyranny.

Call it the Minutemen theory of gun rights. While the Second Amendment was framed to protect government-organized militias at a time when we had a very small standing army, the right has promoted the idea that it’s “America’s first freedom,” integral to defending our other rights, since the 1960s.

It’s become ubiquitous, from the militia movement that arose in the 1980s and has seen a resurgence in recent years, to the armed standoffs at the Bundy Ranch and the Malheur National Wildlife refuge. It animated Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, as well as the 2013 Los Angeles airport shooting spree, a 2014 mass shooting in Las Vegas that left two cops and one civilian dead and a number of less dramatic acts of violence.

The belief that democratic government rests on the Second Amendment has become widespread among Americans; one poll found that about two-thirds believe that “their constitutional right to own a gun was intended to ensure their freedom.” But Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland and the author of several books on the politics of guns, says that’s a modern idea. While “there’s a long tradition of some in America feeling deeply mistrustful of our government—and there have been incidents throughout our history where people took up arms against the government—the more specific idea that there’s a right to rebel, or that somehow you can keep the government under control by taking up weapons, found its first serious expression in a law review article published in 1960. And the idea really took hold among a subset of Americans and a subset of gun owners, who argue to this day that this was part of the purpose of the Second Amendment. They talk about the Minutemen and the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence. The idea really took hold in the 1970s and 1980s when the NRA itself began to use this same kind of rhetoric.”

It’s also infused right-wing politics beyond the gun lobby. Watering the “tree of liberty” with the “blood of patriots and tyrants” is a common theme in Tea Party circles, where the Gadsden flag—don’t tread on me!—and loose talk of revolution blend seamlessly with mainstream anti-tax ideology and disdain for liberals. While a handful of Democrats competing in red states have run ads featuring them firing weapons, it’s become almost universal in Republican campaigns, where it not only marks a candidate’s opposition to gun-safety legislation but also signals that he or she is ready to wage war against the Washington establishment.

War as a metaphor for politics isn’t limited to the right, but it has become a constant in conservative discourse. “The first shots of the second American civil war have already been fired,” said Alex Jones earlier this month. “We are in a clear-cut cultural civil war,” according to Newt Gingrich. Pat Buchanan offered that we’re “approaching something of a civil war,” and said that it’s time for Trump to “burn down the Bastille.” “You ain’t got any idea of the war that’s raging outside the four walls of the church,” religious-right activist Dave Daubenmire told a crowd of antigay protesters last weekend. “Don’t you understand what’s going on? Don’t you know it’s a war? Don’t you know they want your children? Don’t you understand that those same people singing ‘Jesus loves you this I know’ want to kill us?” Then there’s the quasi-apocalyptic prepper mentality, which holds that we’re on the brink of social collapse so you’d better buy gold and stock up on ammo for when the shit inevitably hits the fan.

Nathan Kalmoe says that there’s “an important distinction to make between people who have more conventional views, versus people who have much more extreme views.” He thinks that, whether on the left or the right, those who are at least somewhat close to the mainstream “probably have a greater commitment to nonviolent approaches to politics and are socialized into nonviolent norms of how participation is supposed to work.” But on the right those lines have become blurred in recent years—Glenn Beck’s goldbuggery, the ravings of the “alt-right” and the Minutemen theory of gun rights have all become features of the larger conservative landscape, even if they’re not quite mainstream.

Kalmoe says that rhetoric alone “isn’t the main cause of political violence, but violent language and vilifying opponents can nudge people in ways that make them think and act more aggressively in politics.” He conducted an experiment that first measured subjects’ aggressive personality traits. Then he exposed them to two imaginary political ads, one that employed mildly violent political rhetoric and one that used neutral language, and he found that those subjects who had already displayed a penchant for aggressive behavior were far more likely to support political violence after being exposed to the violent rhetoric. So it’s not that violent rhetoric causes real-world violence so much as it can “make people who behave aggressively in real-life more likely to endorse violence against political leaders.”

Liberals believe that mature institutions and the separation of powers are what keep tyranny at bay, not an AR-15. If James Hodgkinson looked around himself and saw a president who acts as if he’s above the law and a Congress that’s working in the dark to strip away health insurance from millions of people to finance tax cuts for the wealthy but is unwilling to perform its oversight duties, and decided that he would stand up to tyranny with an assault rifle, he would have taken a theme that’s exceedingly common on the right to its bloody logical conclusion.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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