June 8, 2023

Opinion | An expert in political violence warns: Jan. 6 hints at worse to come

Read Time:7 Minute, 13 Second

The Jan. 6 House select committee hearings this week are among the most important of all, because they will foreground a topic that many Americans ordinarily don’t associate with their democracy, even after the events of the insurrection: political violence.

The Tuesday proceeding will focus on militias and paramilitary groups that helped bring us to the precipice on Jan. 6, 2021. The Thursday hearing will examine President Donald Trump’s derelict conduct as the violence raged — and how this was intimately entangled with the desire of Trump and many of his MAGA followers to overturn our political order.

But hovering over these hearings will be a broader, unanswered question: whether the United States is developing an endemic problem with political violence and, in coming years, how bad it might get.

For an unflinching look at this larger context, I reached out to Rachel Kleinfeld, a specialist in political conflict who has studied the breakdown of democracy and the rule of law in many countries.

In a new article for Just Security, Kleinfeld charts the developing connections between militias and Republican Party actors at all levels. And in her most recent book, “A Savage Order,” Kleinfeld detailed patterns of democratic deterioration that have pushed other nations down the path to conflagration.

I asked Kleinfeld to explain how the events surrounding Jan. 6 might be a harbinger of such breakdown here at home. An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows.

Greg Sargent: You’ve written that the Republican Party has a “militia problem.” Can you describe it?

Rachel Kleinfeld: For the last few years, we’ve seen an uptick in Republican parties at the local level — though occasionally at the state level — using militias for security at party events, having militias vote on party business, in one case in Michigan having militias introduce legislation. You’re seeing a lot of photo-ops with militia members — things that normalize their interaction with the democratic process.

These militias are being used to threaten other Republicans who aren’t part of this antidemocratic faction.

Sargent: It seems as though some GOP and right-wing politicians are hovering in a gray area. They’re endorsing violent attacks on the opposition without facing serious party discipline, fantasizing about settling political differences via paramilitary combat, vastly minimizing the Jan. 6 insurrectionist violence or erasing it with propaganda, and describing Jan. 6 rioters facing prosecution as “political prisoners.”

Has this gray area been replicated by other countries that went on to spiral into worse political violence?

Kleinfeld: One of the things we know about other countries that descend into greater political violence is that violence is preceded by a dehumanization phase. America is well along in that phase: things like misogyny, racial epithets, calling Democrats “groomers” and comparing them to pedophiles.

The next stage is making violence against those dehumanized opponents seem more normal. You’re starting to see GOP candidates posing with rifles — everything from Rep. Thomas Massie’s family Christmas photo to Eric Greitens’s new ads about hunting RINOs.

Sometimes it’s against Republicans who are not part of the antidemocratic faction. Sometimes it’s against Democrats. But either way, dehumanization normalizes the idea that harming those dehumanized opponents is legitimate.

We know from other countries that have descended into really serious political violence that this is a trajectory, and we’re on it. We’re actually pretty far advanced on it.

Sargent: What would a further spiraling downward from here look like? One can imagine something like this: Threats of violence toward election administrators get worse. Election outcomes, particularly when Republicans lose, are violently contested with more regularity. Now-routine chatter about Democratic rule being illegitimate gets increasingly endorsed by GOP party actors, leading to violent attacks on politicians.

Some experts in democratic breakdown fear something akin to “the Troubles” in Ireland. What’s your worry? Is it similar to what I just laid out?

Kleinfeld: It’s actually a little worse. The percentages of Americans endorsing violence are approaching Northern Ireland’s Troubles at their height in 1973.

Right now, the antidemocratic faction of Republicans is targeting three groups: the pro-democratic faction of Republicans; election officials in both parties who are maintaining free and fair elections; and a lot of regular people they’re targeting with dehumanization and violence, to build their own base.

If the antidemocratic faction wins, then I think the heightened violence we’re seeing now will continue. But if they start losing, then they’ve built up a lot of hatred — a lot of distrust in the system — and then the violence is going to get out of their control. It’ll look more like an insurgency. A disaffected left, not connected to the Democratic Party, is also justifying violence. It could get ugly.

Sargent: Is this akin to a world-historical moment, as some historians have argued? This is obviously an imperfect parallel, but European liberals closely tracked the U.S. struggle over slavery with an eye toward how democracy would fare in the world going forward. Are liberal democrats abroad watching what we do now in some similar sense? Should they be?

Kleinfeld: It’s a good question. Liberal democracy around the world is under fire. Major democracies — like India — are now ranked “partly” free by Freedom House. America has been one of the top 25 countries on the fastest downward trajectories.

So other countries are looking at the U.S. But the U.S. is also part of a global trend.

There are a lot of reasons for this trend. But one is that the democratic world tends to see China as the primary political model that’s a threat, whereas we tend to see Russia as simply causing mayhem.

But Russia is propagating an alternative model. It’s a White, Christian, traditional hierarchy, very masculine, led by a strongman — and they’re spreading that model globally, through satellites like Hungary, and through online white-supremacist movements that they back.

We need to take seriously that for a lot of the world, this traditional hierarchy is actually pretty attractive. It’s an alternative political model that we’re now fighting globally.

Sargent: Does that put us at a crossroads? Trump tried to destroy our constitutional order and had the tacit backing of many in his party. That produced the biggest outbreak of political violence in modern U.S. history. Yet many Republicans still refuse to seriously admit to what happened or even dismiss efforts at an accounting as themselves being illegitimate.

Could a very different response from Republican leaders right now — in which they took this moment seriously — make a further downward spiral less likely?

Kleinfeld: Absolutely. The research on leaders is incredibly clear. If enough Republican leaders started denouncing political violence — saying there’s a line in the sand in a democracy, and violence is it — we would see much less political violence.

America has faced political violence before. The Ku Klux Klan grew in the 1920s. Following Brown v. Board of Education, you had a huge uprising of “massive resistance” in the South. In both cases, elected politicians and candidates normalized a lot of violence.

We’ve had this in the past. We’re having it now. Politicians could play a big role in dialing that back.

Sargent: This is the moment when the hearings really talk about political violence as a threat to our future. What do we need to see the hearings dramatize on this score?

Kleinfeld: They need to show how the GOP is using organized militias. They also need to show that political violence is much more mainstream now. The types of people committing political violence on the right are no longer criminal demographics.

The kinds of violence we’re seeing at political events — Jan. 6 and so on — the majority of people are older men, they’re married, they have children, they have jobs. Often white-collar jobs.

Americans need to realize that paramilitary groups could become a normal part of our political life. We could start seeing it becoming vastly less safe to exercise freedom of speech and assembly. It’s already much less safe than just a handful of years ago.

Sargent: In your ideal version of the hearings, this would be dramatized?

Kleinfeld: The fact that political violence is going to start affecting everyday people’s lives needs to get demonstrated. Americans need to understand that you can’t just keep your head down, stay out of politics and avoid what’s happening.

You’re not going to be able to hide from it.

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