The Party of Violence
Adam Smith said, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” It was meant as comfort. A lot can be wrong and still not signal the apocalypse. So let’s hope that the increasing fascination with political violence we are hearing from Republicans is a passing thing, and not a sign of unravelling.
A Republican running for Northampton County executive in Pennsylvania gave a heated address on August 29 about mask mandates in schools. Steve Lynch is tired, he said, of providing his school board with arguments and data (he apparently thinks the data support letting kids go maskless), but the important thing about his rant is the threat of force:
Forget into [sic] these school boards with frigging data. You go into school boards to remove ’em! That’s what you do! They don’t follow the law! You go in and you remove ’em. I’m going in there with twenty strong men, I’m going to speak to the school board and I’m going to give them an option. They can leave or they can be removed.
“You don’t follow the law.” That’s the kind of language that Republicans are now employing. You go in with “twenty strong men.” Lynch has not run for public office before, but he did attend the January 6 rally in Washington, D.C. and has posted on social media that the violence that day was a false-flag operation meant to discredit Trump supporters.
Further south, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina spoke last weekend at an event sponsored by the Macon County Republican Party. He delivered the kind of lies that have become routine among some Republicans. The election was stolen—and not just the presidential contest but also that won by Gov. Roy Cooper (who defeated his opponent by a quarter of a million votes). Cawthorn told the crowd that vaccines are harmful to children and urged them to “defend their children.” A woman asked what he plans to do about the “535 Americans who have been captured from January 6.” Cawthorn, who has apparently heard this before, thundered, “Political hostages!” He went on to assure the audience that “we” are working on this and mentions “busting them out.” When someone in the crowd asked, “When are you gonna call us back to Washington?” he replied that “We are actively working on that one.”
He wasn’t finished. Insurrection talk is becoming his specialty: “The things that we are wanting to fight for, it doesn’t matter if our votes don’t count. Because, you know, if our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place—and it’s bloodshed.”
You may remember Cawthorn. He was the young man who, addressing the Stop the Steal rally on January 6, praised the crowd’s courage and contrasted it with the “cowards” in Congress.
Cawthorn’s work experience before serving in Congress consisted of a stint at Chick-fil-A and a part-time job in a congressional office. He dropped out of college after a single semester in which his grades were mostly Ds. But he was apparently active in that one semester: More than 150 of his classmates signed a letter accusing Cawthorn of being a sexual predator. One woman told the Washington Post that he drove her to a rural area only to become enraged when she rebuffed his sexual advances. He drove back at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour.
Naturally, Donald Trump has endorsed him for “whatever he wants to do.”
In neighboring Tennessee, the Williamson County school board was disrupted by anti-mask parents. As doctors and nurses testified that masks would help limit the spread of COVID-19, people cursed and threatened them: “We will find you!” “We know who you are!”
In Georgia, a mobile vaccination site had to be shut down after anti-vax protesters showed up to threaten and harass health care workers. “Aside from feeling threatened themselves, staff realized no one would want to come to that location for a vaccination under those circumstances, so they packed up and left,” a spokeswoman for the state health department told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
A survey of the rest of the country yields yet more examples.
We are all old enough to remember a time when election workers were public-spirited citizens, usually elderly, who volunteered their time (or got very modest compensation) to sit for hours at polling sites scanning names from lists of voters and handing out little stickers. That America is gone, driven out by a radicalized Republican party. A number of states with Republican majorities have passed laws that would impose criminal fines of up to $25,000 for such “offenses” as permitting a ballot dropbox to be accessible before early voting hours or sending an unsolicited absentee ballot application to a voter.
But that’s not the worst of it. Election workers have been hounded and threatened. Bomb threats have been emailed to election sites. “You and your family will be killed very slowly,” read a text message sent to Tricia Raffensperger after her husband, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, declined to “find” enough votes to flip the state to Trump. As many as one in three election workers has reported feeling unsafe, and thousands are resigning.
When Liz Cheney made the principled decision to vote for Trump’s impeachment, she noted that one reason more Republicans might not have chosen to join her was that “there were members who told me that they were afraid for their own security—afraid, in some instances, for their lives.”
Republicans talk incessantly about other people’s violence. The rioters who burned buildings after George Floyd’s death. The criminals who make Chicago a murder capital. Immigrants who supposedly terrorize their host nation (they don’t).
Criminal violence is a problem, but the kind of violence Republicans are now flirting with or sometimes outright endorsing is political—and therefore on a completely different plane of threat.
Kyle Rittenhouse, an ill-supervised teenager who decided to grab an AR-15 and shoot people at a Kenosha riot (killing two and wounding one) was lionized by the GOP. His mother got a standing ovation at a fundraiser in Waukesha. Ashli Babbitt has become a martyr. Allen West, former chair of the Texas GOP, speaks approvingly of secession. Former national security advisor and Trump confidant Michael Flynn suggests that we need a Myanmar-style coup. Some 28 percent of Republicans respond affirmatively to the proposition that “because things have gotten so far off track” in the United States, “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” to save the country.
Maybe that’s not so bad? Not even a third. Another poll framed it differently: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Fifty-six percent of Republicans agreed.
They are playing with fire. Nothing less than democratic legitimacy is on the line. These menacing signals suggest that January 6 may have been the overture, not the finale.