Even After All This Violent Campaign Rhetoric, the Worst May Be Yet to Come
Heated politics have a habit of exploding
by MATTHEW GAULT & JOSEPH TREVITHICK
What do you get when you mix a desperate, populist demagogue and a losing presidential bid — following a year of sporadic, small-scale political violence? The United States will find out on Nov. 9, and the incendiary rhetoric of the campaign so far has counter-extremism analysts uneasy.
Americans have been lucky for the past 20 years. Since Timothy McVeigh detonated a fertilizer bomb at the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, political violence has been scant. Domestic terrorism is also in decline and remains far below the levels of the 1960s and the late 19th century — two periods of heightened turmoil.
Nonetheless, “the current political rhetoric and behavior that has become increasingly common across the U.S. — and on both sides of the aisle — is on par with the kind of rhetoric that gives counter-terrorism officials concern when placed in different contexts and locations,” the private intelligence firm Soufan Group warned in an October briefing.
For one, American domestic political terrorism has already happened in 2016.
In the middle of the night on Oct. 15, an unknown perpetrator firebombed the Republican Party headquarters in the small town of Hillsborough, North Carolina. A window was broken and swastika had been spray-painted on the building, along with the message: “Nazi Republicans leave town or else.”
Raw Story reported that an assailant had also vandalized a Democratic Party office in nearby Carrboro, a short drive away from Hillsborough. Matt Hughes, a local Democratic Party official, told the outlet that his staff came in on Monday morning to find “Death to Capitalism” scrawled on the wall of the building.
It’s unknown if the two incidents were related. Trump, however, lashed out over social media at his campaign rival. “Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems in North Carolina just firebombed our office in Orange County because we are winning @NCGOP,” Trump tweeted.
“The attack on the Orange County HQ @NCGOP office is horrific and unacceptable. Very grateful that everyone is safe,” Clinton responded.
It’s important to understand that political violence is not inevitable. Violence needs fuel.
Inflammatory rhetoric can be one source, as it can inspire individuals to lash out in support or in opposition to what was said. Reacting to violence in a provocative manner — as Trump did — can also increase the possibility that violent retaliation may occur in a cyclical manner.
For his part, Trump has accused the Clinton campaign of baiting his supporters into reacting violently. In October, the conservative group Project Veritas Action — which has received money from the Trump campaign — released an edited video showing a Democratic operative (who later lost his job) bragging about infiltrating Trump rallies to goad supporters into violence.
Donna Brazile, the Democratic National Committee’s interim chair, said the operative’s comments “do not in any way comport with our lang-standing policies on organizing events.”
Of course, Trump has repeatedly condoned and incited violence — in the broader (and probably still legal) sense of the term. In August, Trump implied that supporters of the Second Amendment could do something about Clinton. Months before that, he told his followers to knock the crap out of anyone who would disrupt a rally in Iowa. He promised to pay the legal fees.
The shadow of potentially lethal violence hangs over the campaign season. In October, the FBI arrested three men in Kansas who allegedly planned to set off crude explosives in an apartment complex with a large Somali population a day after the election. The trio held “sovereign citizen, anti-government, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant extremist beliefs,” the FBI stated in an affidavit.
Law enforcement and counter-terrorism analysts frequently list sovereign citizens as one of the United States’ primary domestic terrorism threats.
“The rise, not just of Trump — but also the strong run of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary — shows that Americans are looking outside the generally accepted parameters of U.S. political discourse and considering different options,” the counter-radicalization Rural Organizing Project noted in an October 2016 report.
“On the Right, this means they are warming up to previously taboo expressions of bigotry and the use of political violence.”
Jessica Campbell, an activist with the Rural Organizing Project, conducts outreach for communities in Oregon which may be at risk of radicalization. “In rural areas the conditions have been ripe for a white nationalist populist movement,” she told The Guardian.
Campbell’s home has been vandalized and her car tagged with a crude GPS tracker. Someone fired a gun at her in the course of her duties.
“Especially in Oregon where we’re facing demographic shifts in a lot of places, and the economy’s hurting so badly, and we’ve had decades of scapegoating of people of color as the reason why our economies are so bad,” Campbell said.
The Republican Party, for its part, has vainly tried to deescalate anger among Trump supporters. During a recent Iowa town hall, a woman told Trump’s running mate Mike Pence that supporters were ready for a revolution should Clinton become president.
“Don’t say that,” Pence replied.
And Trump has continued to tell his supporters that their voices will be silenced, the election will be “rigged” and the world will turn to horror should he lose. In recent campaign speeches, he said cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago — heavily black, Democratic strongholds — are ground zero for election fraud. (They’re not.)
During the Oct. 19 debate in Las Vegas, Trump refused to say whether he would accept the election results were he to lose — all while dangling the threat of igniting a political crisis. “What I’m saying is that I’ll tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
Clinton has avoided making comparable kinds of apocalyptic statements, but has lambasted Trump as a would-be strongman and a threat to democracy. Evan McMullin, an independent conservative candidate running strongly in Utah, has accused Trump of empowering white nationalists and steering the GOP toward “Russian authoritarianism.”
Again, violence is not inevitable even with the presence of heightened rhetoric, and it’s equally possible tensions will cool after the election in November. After the most heated elections in America’s past, the country tended to come out in one piece. And it’s survived far worse periods of internal turmoil.
“However, [domestic terrorism] tends to lag behind its incitement; if current incendiary political trends continue, violence may very well follow the rhetoric,” the Soufan Group added in its October briefing.
Fortunately, most Americans — Republican and Democrat — do not believe violence is justified in the event the election doesn’t go their way, and they share this belief at roughly at the same levels. Nevertheless, the possibility of individuals or small groups reacting violently after the election remains a concern.