Today, our politics is haunted by the specter of violence.
Bus stops in Washington D.C. flash pictures of MAGA-clad people storming the Capitol, pushing the FBI tip line in bold font. Metal detectors chirp as members of Congress — some furious at the exercise — are checked for weapons on their way to the House floor. A sitting congresswoman was found to have mused about the execution of Democratic politicians before she was elected to office. Members ask for more security at their district offices and homes; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says the “enemy is within the House of Representatives.”
After President Donald Trump’s one-term toppling and following a historically fraught transfer of power, tensions remain ratcheted high and party members securely in their foxholes.
But for experts who study the Republican party, the transformation of violence from rhetorical to real is inevitable. “We’ve been playing with fire for quite some time,” said Alexander Theodoridis, an associate political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who has studied today’s hyper-polarized politics.
It’s a powder keg created by Republicans, fed and amplified by a rightwing media apparatus that has no leftwing equivalent, characterizing Democrats as not just members of the opposing party with different views, but as personally nefarious.
Democrats’ election, then, has become not just a disappointment for the ideologically different, but an existential threat to their very way of life.
The hatred and fear mongering of the fringes has been bleeding into mainstream Republican politics for decades, though it found its greatest catalyst in the ascendancy of Donald Trump.
Years In The Making
There are milestones along the path to total war against a political opponent: Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University who studies polarized democracies, pointed to Lee Atwater, the Republican campaign aide to former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, as a key force that brought viciously negative, lie-infused campaigning into vogue. She also named Newt Gingrich, who preferred a “very combative” approach to legislating when he took over the House in the 90s, banishing compromise from its halls.
Gingrich has become famous for his inflammatory language, for depicting politics as a battle of good (Republicans) versus evil (Democrats). “These people are sick,” he said of congressional Democrats in 1989, while minority whip. “They are so consumed by their own power, by a Mussolini-like ego, that their willingness to run over normal human beings and to destroy honest institutions is unending.” He cast himself and his party as warriors in a spiritual battle. “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz,” he said in 1994. “I see evil all around me everyday.”
That Republican energy carried into the Obama years, from the “you lie!” moment to the embrace of the birtherism conspiracy to a host of miserably racist epithets hurled at the first Black president from Republicans at every level.
Trump — himself, of course, a prominent birther — seized on that trend in the party and exacerbated it with his personal predilection for literally dehumanizing his political opponents: he called Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog” on Twitter after she was ousted from the administration, called Rosie O’Donnell a “pig,” Stormy Daniels a “horseface,” said that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) “yaps.”
Notably saving his most vitriolic insults for women, he also frequently cast aspersions on their mental state, calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) “stone cold crazy” and then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) a “mad woman.”
Theodoridis and his colleagues have been studying the use of dehumanizing language among Democrats and Republicans since 2014. They’ve found that while both Democrats and Republicans engage in or endorse dehumanizing metaphors about their political opponents, at the “elite” level — the echelon lawmakers occupy — it is “definitely asymmetric.”
“The erosion of norms in the type of things appropriate to say in political discourse has happened in a much more pronounced way on the Republican side,” he said.
That’s a big deal: Theodoridis found that there is a direct connection between using dehumanizing language to describe political opponents and endorsing or perpetrating violence against them.
It also dramatically raises the stakes of an election. If Democrats are “radical” “communist” “socialist” extremists, their election represents a serious threat. Republican rhetoric helps there too.
McCoy terms it “battle language,” describing elections as “warlike,” a fight that “evokes the idea of violence and use of force.” It’s often a go-to tactic in authoritarian regimes, McCoy noted, citing Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
“Battle language is combined with real appeals to unfairness, the lack of deservingness of certain groups of people, people getting unfair advantage over you,” she said. “When you’re evoking that kind of injustice, invoking resentment, that can turn into anger and anger drives us to action.”
All of this is inflamed by the widespread misinformation campaign helmed by Republican officials and rightwing media figures alike. Most recently, that machine has been persuading people that the November election was stolen and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate President.
Not only have the evil Democrats taken over the government in order to corrupt your way of life — they cheated to do it.
“If you actually believe the election was stolen, taking to the streets in protest and even rioting very quickly becomes a rational behavior,” Theodoridis said.
Every expert TPM talked to said that the only way to reverse such an alarming tide is for Republican leaders, people with credibility in Republican communities, to affirm that the election was legitimate, that Biden is the true President, that Trump lost. But as has become clear, Republicans have very little incentive to banish the hateful, conspiratorial beliefs and those within their ranks who promote them.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who voted for Trump’s impeachment, is facing a mutiny from within her party and already has a primary challenger. House Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), looking ahead to the 2022 midterms, so feared Trump’s anger after he put some blame on the former president for the Capitol attack that he traveled to Florida Thursday to kiss the ring. The vast majority of Republicans in the House voted against impeachment, and the vast majority of Republicans in the Senate voted that the impeachment trial was unconstitutional and shouldn’t proceed. The voices within the party contradicting the majority are few and doing so at their own political peril.
Susan Stokes, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Center on Democracy, illustrated Republicans’ reluctance to tell the truth by comparing them to the election officials — many of them partisan Republicans themselves — who refused to bow to Trump’s election theft attempts.
“Their self respect rests on their doing what they are expected to do as professionals,” she said. “Politicians’ professional standing is determined by their reelectablity and avoiding being primaried.”
House Republicans especially, due to gerrymandering carried out by their state-level counterparts, are generally more worried about a primary challenger than taking on a Democrat in their safe red districts. But the problem applies to the party as a whole, which is increasingly catering to a base that is much more homogenous than the Democrats’.
While Republicans have long used voter suppression and scare tactics to peel off Democratic voters rather than trying to expand their appeal to a wider coalition, an embrace of Trump’s complete disinterest in any governing ideology made opposing the other side the party’s central tenet.
“The only thing you can do while campaigning is invoking this threat and anger and fear of the other side,” McCoy said. “You have to dampen the turnout of your opponents.”
Democrats, she added, with their “more diverse coalition” have to try to appeal to a wider swath of people.
Both the problem and solution lie in the Republican Party. A concerted effort to use the horror at the Capitol and vestigial threat of violence as a turning point from an ethos years in the making would redirect the party from its full-tilt sprint towards total extremism.
“It’s very hard to close this Pandora’s box,” Theodoridis said. “This is no longer some sort of narrow fringe element — it’s represented in the highest levels of the party.”