As the actual level of political violence rises in the US, fuelled by the far-right rhetoric and inflammatory messaging of the four times indicted and twice-impeached former president Donald Trump, the world’s lone superpower threatens to implode from within. The debasement of US elite political culture, threats of violence against judges, court officials, election officers, jurors, law enforcement, and others, continues. And the rise of actual violence, increasingly from closer to the mainstream of the US electorate, not just the far or white supremacist right, is hitting new highs.
Not since the 1960s and 1970s has physical political violence reached such levels – and in those tumultuous decades, the use of violence was largely against property, rather than people, from the left. Since then, the overwhelming use and threat of violence has emanated from the far-right, and directed against life and limb. More recently, however, violent threats and acts are coming from conservative white American men who are not formally members or supporters of fascistic groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. The overwhelming majority of those prosecuted for the mob attack on the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, for example, were drawn from the ranks of mainstream suburban Republican voters.
In addition, the number of Americans identifying as Democrats and supporting the use of violence for political ends has reached significant levels, principally to defend the rights of minorities and women. And the proportion of American voters who see the ‘other’ party as ‘evil or ‘dangerous’ or ‘inhuman’ has increased and further polarised the electorate.
Hovering on the brink of civil war?
The US is therefore coming closer to what US political scientist and expert on the causes of civil wars, Barbara F. Walter, has called ‘anocracy’ – a political system hovering at a dangerous point between democracy and autocracy. In other words, the US is perilously close to the brink of civil war or, at least, major political violence as election 2024 approaches.
Indeed, the entire election could be in jeopardy.
And as the several court cases facing Trump approach, the latter’s violent rhetoric serves as a signal to his organised and conventional supporters, as a spur to violent action. Combine this with a turbulent GOP primaries season with the subsequent presidential contest with the incumbent Joe Biden. Add to it the widespread belief that the 2020 election was ‘stolen’ by the ‘deep state’, that the election system in the US is rigged against Trump and the GOP, and open threats by Trump or his supporters against judges, witnesses, and election officials as well as members of the various grand juries, and we have an election in 2024 that may feature violence during the campaign, the counting process, and after the results.
It could make January 6, 2021 look tame by comparison.
Monitoring by the Reuters news agency has identified almost 40 politically-motivated killings in the USA since January 6, 2021. There were 213 documented cases of political violence in the same period. Most (two-thirds) were by lone assailants or carried out during clashes between opposing groups at public rallies or protests.
2016 – Trump’s ultimately victorious election campaign – marks the beginning of the recent resurgence of political violence. According to academic researchers such as Professor Gary LaFree of the University of Maryland, political violence is still trending upward and has yet to plateau – let alone decline.
A hostile environment for election officials
An important academic article in the Journal of Democracy pointed out the scale of the problem:
“An unprecedented number of elections administrators received threats in 2020—so much so that a third of poll workers surveyed by the Brennan Center for Justice in April 2021 said that they felt unsafe and 79% wanted government-provided security. In July, the Department of Justice set up a special task force specifically to combat threats against election administrators.”
In that article, Rachel Kleinfeld argues that “the bedrock idea uniting right-wing communities who condone violence is that white Christian men in the United States are under cultural and demographic threat and require defending—and that it is the Republican Party and Donald Trump, in particular, who will safeguard their way of life”.
According to Kleinfeld, four factors elevate the risk of election-related violence. “1) a highly competitive election that could shift the balance of power; 2) partisan division based on identity; 3) electoral rules that enable winning by exploiting identity cleavages; and 4) weak institutional constraints on violence, particularly security-sector bias toward one group, leading perpetrators to believe they will not be held accountable for violence”.
All of the above are present in spades in the US, and the politics of the GOP, led by the inflammatory leading Republican Trump, who is adding fuel to the fire on a frequent and regular basis.
Trumpism is gangsterism
Recently, after being indicted for aspects of the January 6 attacks, Trump threatened on his social media platform Truth Social, “If you go after me, I’m coming after you!” This was interpreted by prosecutors and the presiding judge, Tanya Chutkan, as an attempt to threaten potential witnesses in the upcoming trial.
In a thinly veiled racist swipe against African-Americans living in Washington D.C., Trump wrote that there was “NO WAY” he could get a fair trial in D.C. a “FILTHY AND CRIME RIDDEN EMBARRASSMENT TO OUR NATION.” Trump called for Judge Chutkan, an African-American, to recuse herself and for the trial to be moved outside of Washington D.C.
This statement echoed his notoriously racist references to Haiti and African countries as “shitholes”, in 2018, during his presidency.
On numerous Sunday morning TV talk shows, Trump’s lawyer John Lauro repeated Trump’s intention to try to get the federal case related to the January 6 attack moved to “West Virginia” which he claimed had a “diverse jury” that represented the “characteristics of the American people.”
A Texas woman was inspired to send threatening and racist messages to Chutkan, via voicemail, threatening to kill her should Trump lose the 2024 election. She is currently in custody.
This week, after Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney Fani Willis, laid charges against Trump for his attempt to steal the senatorial election in 2020, during which his phone call to that effect was recorded and later broadcast to the world, Trump responded with thinly veiled racism. Trump railed against “riggers” – the district attorney in this matter is African-American. Trump’s supporters picked up on the hardly subliminal message by reproducing images of gallows and nooses on social media.
Violence as the continuation of politics by other means
By January 2020, 41% of Republicans agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands”; a year later, after the January 6 insurrection, 56% of Republicans agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent action.” Moral disengagement also spiked: By February 2021, more than two-thirds of Republicans (and half of Democrats) saw the other party as “downright evil,”; while 12% more Republicans believed Democrats were less than human than the other way around”.
According to studies at the University of Chicago:
“The number of Americans who believe the use of force is justified to restore Trump to the White House [has] increased by roughly 6 million in the last few months [of 2023] to an estimated 18 million people.”
“Of those 18 million people, 68% believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and 62% believe the prosecutions of Trump are intended to hurt his chances in 2024. An estimated 7% of Americans now believe violence could be necessary to restore Trump to the presidency, up from 4.5%, or 12 million people, in April .”
According to insightful analysis by the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS):
An atmosphere of violence overshadows the election campaign, more than a year before the votes will be counted, if indeed they are to be counted… Michigan state GOP Representative Matt Maddock told supporters that “civil war” would break out if the Democratic state attorney general went ahead with the prosecution of the 16 fake electors. [Emphasis added]
“Someone’s going to get so pissed off, they’re going to shoot someone,” Maddock continued, according to a recording. “Or we’re going have a civil war or some sort of revolution. That’s where this is going.” He went on to compare the treatment of Republicans to the Nazi gas chambers.”
From a modern Republican, this is more like a hope than a dire warning of the impending implosion of the American imperial homeland. Great empires normally collapse from within, and take many others down with them.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics and associate dean of research in the School of Policy and Global Affairs at City, University of London, a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and a columnist at The Wire. He is an International Fellow at the ROADS Initiative think tank, Islamabad, and author of several books including Foundations of the American Century.