Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Stefano Costantino/SOPA Images
the national interest

This Is Not the Political Violence That Should Scare Us

The conditions are present for much deadlier political attacks.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Stefano Costantino/SOPA Images

The United States has endemic crises of violence and political extremism. Both elements were present when a right-wing maniac named David DePape allegedly broke into Nancy Pelosi’s home, apparently hoping to attack or murder her, and assaulted her husband, Paul. But when I think about the violence and extremism that will warp the future of American politics, crimes like this, as ghastly as they may be, are not the sort of thing that grip my imagination. What I fear is much worse.

The personal vulnerability of Pelosi is a simple problem that we can, and very likely will, solve. John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in an era before American presidents received 24-hour security. With the benefit of historical distance, that era — when presidents often received random visitors who wandered by their office — seems incredible.

It seems hard to imagine that a similar level of protection (or at least one much higher than exists now) won’t, in the near future, be extended to high-ranking congressional leaders and judges. People holding positions of such authority will no longer be able to live normal lives in a country whose hatreds spill routinely into violence, but it is a practical solution. At some point, an event like a would-be murderer breaking into the home of a congressional leader and assaulting her spouse will be impossible.

The political right does not have a monopoly on stochastic terrorism. In recent years, a left-wing gunman shot Republican members of Congress at a baseball practice; a disturbed left-wing man turned himself in to police after stalking Brett Kavanaugh’s house.

But there are three relevant ways in which the political right does differ from the left. First, it maintains a highly permeable boundary between conspiracy theorists and party officials. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. Donald Trump is an avid consumer and spreader of conspiracy theories, and the party’s ranks are filled at even the highest levels with officials who spread deranged claims. Marjorie Taylor Greene has claimed, among other things, that Pelosi has a “gazpacho police” — she meant Gestapo — persecuting Republicans. Michigan Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon has an elaborate theory that Democrats devised COVID shutdowns to destroy the United States as a revenge plot for the South’s defeat in the Civil War. (If you listen to her reasons, they make even less sense.) The sort of bigoted gibberish DePape apparently spouted on social media, and which likely inspired his attack, is only incrementally distinguishable from the beliefs of high-ranking Republicans.

Second, mass gun ownership has become a right-wing fetish. Republicans are not the only Americans who own guns. But they are almost solely responsible for the near absence of regulation that has enabled individuals to amass weapons of war, and they are largely unique in their professed belief that gun ownership has a political purpose. They see guns as a weapon against political oppression. And they — again, including their elected officials — frequently threaten to turn them against the government.

And third, the Republican Party has a near monopoly on partisan armed militias. Conservatives like to point to the dangers of extremist groups like antifa, but antifa is tiny, lightly armed, and generally hostile to the Democrats. (Following Joe Biden’s inauguration, antifa vandalized Democratic Party headquarters and chanted, “Fuck Joe Biden.”) Groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, by contrast, have staunch partisan loyalty. And Republicans increasingly reciprocate their loyalty. Republicans routinely denounce domestic anti-terrorism surveillance as a plot to intimidate their supporters. Proud Boys are infiltrating a powerful Republican organization in Florida with the tacit assent of leaders like Marco Rubio.

The combination of these three conditions creates the potential for political violence on a larger and more tragic scale than the attack on Pelosi’s home — or even the January 6 invasion. This threat does not lend itself to any easy solution, not least because one of the two major parties has neither the incentive nor the desire to do anything about it. The mania loose on the American right will only grow more dangerous.

This Is Not the Political Violence That Should Scare Us