On November 12, while promoting his new book, Betrayal, ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl released an audio recording of a conversation with Donald Trump. Responding to a question about the Capitol rioters who’d chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump said those words were just “common sense,” given the fraudulence of the 2020 election. Two days later, Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso, who ran as a moderate but has since swung to the right, was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about Trump’s comment. Despite repeated prodding, Barrasso kept dodging the issue, emphasizing the need to move on and suggesting that there had been voting irregularities in the 2020 election that merited further investigation.
Barrasso’s dismal performance was even more ominous than Trump’s initial comments. Trump is Trump, a known quantity. But Barrasso’s cowardly inability to condemn him shows, once again, how thoroughly the Republican Party has been conquered by Trump, whose promotion of political violence now has the tacit approval of almost the entire party apparatus (with the few exceptions, like Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, increasingly pushed to the margins—if not driven out of public office completely).
Trump occupies a curious position as an ex-president. Thanks to his social media blackout, he’s barely visible as a public figure—but he remains a magnetic force that tugs the party toward him. His reckless incitement ensures that he continues to be banned from the major social media outlets and the mainstream media. But Trump’s fans can easily follow his messages on Fox News and on fringe outlets like Newsmax and One America News.
The mainstream media’s blackout of Trump has done nothing to stop the circulation of his ideas or their ability to reshape the GOP. And these include the increasingly normalized threats of violence. When Republican Representative Paul Gosar tweeted an anime video showing him killing his Democratic colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and swinging at President Joe Biden with two swords, there was hardly an elected Republican to be found to object or say that Gosar had crossed the line into indecency. Gosar’s claim that he was just joking has become, through complicit silence, his party’s line.
The normalization of threats of political violence has been an intensifying trend in 2021. At its core is the simple fact that Republican leaders like Barrasso have decided the party can’t afford to lose Trump—or even Gosar. The GOP has become an alliance between the brutal and the craven.
Surveying the rise of threats of violence in public life, The New York Times reported on November 12 that “threats against members of Congress have jumped by 107 percent compared with the same period in 2020, according to the Capitol Police.” Remarkably, the situation is so bad that the paper, habitually given to framing all political disputes as the fault of both parties, was frank about the role of the GOP. The Times report noted, “From congressional offices to community meeting rooms, threats of violence are becoming commonplace among a significant segment of the Republican Party. Ten months after rioters attacked the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, and after four years of a president who often spoke in violent terms about his adversaries, right-wing Republicans are talking more openly and frequently about the use of force as justifiable in opposition to those who dislodged him from power.”
This analysis echoed a Reuters report on November 9.
Profiling three individuals who’d made threats against elected officials, Reuters found some commonalities, including the fact that “all described themselves as patriots fighting a conspiracy that robbed Donald Trump of the 2020 election. They are regular consumers of far-right websites that embrace Trump’s stolen-election falsehoods. And none have been charged with a crime by the law enforcement agencies alerted to their threats.”
The last point is crucial. Like Gosar’s violent anime, many of the acts of intimidation that are becoming more common don’t lend themselves to a law enforcement solution. The threatening words and images are often vague enough that they fall under the legal definition of protected political speech. But make no mistake: These are words meant to intimidate—and they instill real fear.
Far from denouncing those issuing such threats, the GOP uses its political muscle to protect them. When the Justice Department indicated it was going to investigate threats to school board members over critical race theory, Republicans in Congress objected, with Representative Jim Jordan complaining of the creation of a “snitch line.”
Ultimately, these threats of violence need to be understood as primarily a political problem. They are happening because the GOP views them as offering a political advantage with no real downside. The way to combat them is to call attention to them politically, in speeches and campaigns, making clear that Trump’s gangster politics are now accepted by the Republican Party as a whole.
Biden failed to make the link between Trump and the party’s increasing extremism in the 2020 election. Like Hillary Clinton before him, he tried to distinguish between the toxic Trump and a redeemable GOP. But this sop to moderate Republicans effectively prevents Democrats from describing what’s actually happening. It reinforces the view that non-Trump Republicans, like the newly elected Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, should get points just for being more polite. Going forward, Democrats have to make sure that the public understands the politics of intimidation isn’t just a Trump problem, but a Republican one