The Right’s Violence Problem
David Leonhardt / The New York Times
(May 17, 2022) — Over the past decade, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has counted about 450 US murders committed by political extremists.
Of these 450 killings, right-wing extremists committed about 75%. Islamic extremists were responsible for about 20%, and left-wing extremists were responsible for 4%.
Nearly half of the murders were specifically tied to white supremacists.
As this data shows, the American political right has a violence problem that has no equivalent on the left. And the 10 victims in Buffalo, New York, this past weekend are now part of this toll.
“Right-wing extremist violence is our biggest threat,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, has written. “The numbers don’t lie.”
The pattern extends to violence less severe than murder, like the Jan. 6 attack on Congress. It also extends to the language from some Republican politicians — including Donald Trump — and conservative media figures that treats violence as a legitimate form of political expression. A much larger number of Republican officials do not use this language but also do not denounce it or punish politicians who do use it; Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, is a leading example.
It is important to emphasize that not all extremist violence comes from the right — and that the precise explanation for any one attack can be murky, involving a mixture of ideology, mental illness, gun access and more. In the immediate aftermath of an attack, people are sometimes too quick to claim a direct cause and effect. But it is also incorrect to pretend that right-wing violence and left-wing violence are equivalent problems.
Fears in Washington
If you talk to members of Congress and their aides these days — especially off the record — you will often hear them mention their fears of violence being committed against them.
Some Republican members of Congress have said that they were reluctant to vote for Trump’s impeachment or conviction partly because of the threats against other members who had already denounced him. House Republicans who voted for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill also received threats. Democrats say their offices receive a spike in phone calls and online messages threatening violence after they are criticized on conservative social media or cable television shows.
People who oversee elections report similar problems. “One in six election officials have experienced threats because of their job,” the Brennan Center, a research group, reported this year. “Ranging from death threats that name officials’ young children to racist and gendered harassment, these attacks have forced election officials across the country to take steps like hiring personal security, fleeing their homes, and putting their children into counseling.”
There is often overlap between these violent threats and white supremacist beliefs. White supremacy tends to treat people of color as un-American or even less than fully human, views that can make violence seem justifiable. The suspect in the Buffalo massacre evidently posted an online manifesto that discussed replacement theory, a racial conspiracy theory that Tucker Carlson promotes on his Fox News show.
“History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse,” Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the few Republicans who has repeatedly and consistently denounced violence and talk of violence from the right, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and antisemitism,” Cheney wrote, and called on Republican leaders to “renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”
A few other Republicans, like Sen. Mitt Romney, have taken a similar stance. But many other prominent Republicans have taken a more neutral stance or even embraced talk of violence.
Some have spoken openly about violence as a legitimate political tool — and not just Trump, who has done so frequently.
At the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 attack, Rep. Mo Brooks suggested the crowd should “start taking down names and kicking ass.” Before she was elected to Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene supported the idea of executing Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats. Rep. Paul Gosar once posted an animated video altered to depict himself killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and swinging swords at Biden.
Rick Perry, a former Texas governor, once called the Federal Reserve “treasonous” and talked about treating its chair “pretty ugly.” During Greg Gianforte’s campaign for Montana’s House seat, he went so far as to assault a reporter who asked him a question he did not like; Gianforte won and has since become Montana’s governor.
These Republicans have received no meaningful sanction from their party. McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, has been especially solicitous of Brooks and other members who use violent imagery.
This Republican comfort with violence is new. Republican leaders from past decades, such as Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Howard Baker and the Bushes, did not evoke violence.
“In a stable democracy,” Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist, said, “politicians unambiguously reject violence and unambiguously expel from their ranks anti-democratic forces.”
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