Trump and his far-right allies have stoked a dangerous climate that increases the likelihood of violence far beyond midterms, extremism experts warn

Trump and his far-right allies have stoked a dangerous climate that increases the likelihood of violence far beyond midterms, extremism experts warn
Trump
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Legacy Sports USA on October 09, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona.Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • Political violence experts warn that Trump and his allies are fomenting a dangerous climate.

  • They're normalizing "aggression and violence" against political opponents, an extremism researcher said.

  • "Republican campaign ads have been riven with violent language and imagery," an expert on political violence said.

A home invasion and violent attack against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband prompted renewed concerns about the contentious political climate in the US and the potential for more political violence surrounding the midterm elections.

Pelosi is one of the Democrats most vilified by former President Donald Trump and his far-right allies. Experts on extremism and political violence warn that Trump and his MAGA compatriots are fomenting a dangerous climate that increases the likelihood that opponents of the GOP will be targeted with violence, underscoring that the threat extends well beyond midterms.

"I am quite concerned about violence surrounding the midterms, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that the threat of violence stops after the midterm elections," Kurt Braddock, a professor of public communication at American University who studies far-right extremism, told Insider. "Regardless of the outcomes of the elections, certain beliefs and norms have been cultivated (particularly among the far-right elements of the Republican party) that tacitly approve of aggression against targets on the left."

Since Trump entered the White House in 2017, far-right politicians and pundits have "grown increasingly emboldened to use language that — purposefully or incidentally — normalizes aggression and violence against political enemies," Braddock said, emphasizing that the effects of that normalization don't end with the midterms.

"It's an issue we will be contending with for some time," Braddock said.

Shannon Hiller, the head of the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University, told Insider that she's confident US elections will remain safe and secure — including the midterms.

"What I'm more concerned about is the post-election period, when these persistent, unfounded claims of election fraud and calls for violence could intersect to spur individuals to violent action," Hiller added, "This is part of what our research showed following the 2020 election — where local officials of both parties faced really awful threats and harassment especially in states where leaders pushed these unfounded claims. It's one reason why we call on all officials and leaders across the country to reject this type of rhetoric."

'Millions of Americans believe violence is justified'

Capitol Hill dystopian
An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of President Donald Trump gather in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.REUTERS/Leah Millis

Throughout Trump's presidency, top experts on democracy and political violence offered routine warnings that he was stoking a dangerous climate in the US that could spiral out of control. The fatal riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, which was largely provoked by Trump's lies about the election, offered ample evidence that their concerns had been well-founded. Nearly two years after the Capitol riot, they haven't stopped ringing alarm bells — particularly as Republicans continue to target their opponents with incendiary rhetoric.

"Republican campaign ads have been riven with violent language and imagery," Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and expert on political violence, told Insider. Kleinfeld emphasized that pro-Trump Republicans have not just been going after Democrats, but also anyone in the party perceived as disloyal to Trump (often referred to as RINOs, or "Republicans in name only").

Republicans like Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, who refused to embrace Trump's effort to overturn the election and sit on the House January 6 select committee, have faced levels of demonization similar to prominent Democrats like Pelosi, as well as death threats.

"It's actually hard to get regular people to commit violence, but it's made easier when people are made to seem less than human, they are turned into threats, and violence is posited as defensive. MAGA politicians have been doing all three," Kleinfeld, who testified before the House committee investigating January 6, said.

David DePape, the man accused of attacking Paul Pelosi with a hammer, allegedly broke into the couple's San Francisco home looking for the House Speaker and intended to take her hostage. DePape allegedly told police he was "sick of the insane fucking level of lies coming out of Washington, DC" and that he wanted to have a little chat with the speaker. San Francisco's District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said the attack was "politically motivated."

Kleinfeld said the attack Pelosi's husband was an example of stochastic terrorism, or an act of violence in which the perpetrator is inspired by language or rhetoric that dehumanizes and demonizes the targeted group or individual. As one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington for years, Pelosi has been one of the biggest targets of violent far-right rhetoric and conspiracy theories.

Prominent far-right figures, including Trump and Fox News' Tucker Carlson, have spread conspiracy theories about the Pelosi attack — suggesting, without evidence, that there's more to story. It's part of a broader trend.

DePape had shared an array of conspiratorial content on social media, including posts that echoed Trump's false claim the 2020 election was stolen.

"We are now at a point where millions of Americans believe violence is justified as a defensive measure, and are convinced by movements such as Q that their enemies are satanic or inhuman," Kleinfeld said, adding, "A religious revival of Q imagery has been traveling the country with General Michael Flynn, Trump's son, and other supporters in advance of the midterms, spreading this belief that a fight between good and evil is underway. This is dangerous stuff."

'Political violence is here to stay'

proud boy in shirt that says "death to liberals"
A member of the Proud Boys wearing a t-shirt that reads "death to liberals" stands with other Proud Boys in Freedom Plaza during a protest on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC.Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Braddock, the far-right extremism researcher at American University, said it's clear that the attacker was targeting the House Speaker and that the perpetrator was "motivated by ideas that are often amplified by elements of the far-right," which includes elected officials and pundits.

Trump devotees treat Pelosi — the highest-ranking Democrat in office during Trump's presidency — as the "prime villain in far-right disinformation and conspiracies," Braddock said, adding that this was especially clear on January 6 when "right-wing extremists" stormed the Capitol building and sought her out. The attack on Paul Pelosi followed the same track, but on a smaller scale.

By sowing doubts about the integrity of US elections and lashing out at people tied to his legal woes — and warning that there will be "big problems" if he's indicted — Trump continues to speak to "a part of his constituency who are looking for a reason to become violent," Braddock warned.

Trump has a massive audience and millions of people listening to what he says. Even if he doesn't mean to incite violence, when Trump uses provocative language it's "likely that at least a few of his devoted followers will interpret what he says as actual calls to violent action," Braddock said.

"This form of political violence is here to stay. It is clear that many parts of the right-wing have no problem amplifying information that paints political adversaries to be 'dealt with,'" Braddock said, "Until those parts of the right-wing disavow manifest violence and abandon rhetoric that normalizes it, we will continue to see these kinds of attacks."

Read the original article on Business Insider