COMMENTARY

Republicans are increasingly ready for violence: We look away at our peril

In the wake of Jan. 6, public opinion surveys suggest the threat is real — and the time for blithe denial is over

By Chauncey DeVega
Published August 3, 2021 9:36AM (EDT)
Armed members of the far-right Proud Boys groups stand guard during a memorial for Patriot Prayer member Aaron Jay Danielson on September 5, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. Danielson was shot and killed on Saturday, August 29 during a pro-Trump rally in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
Armed members of the far-right Proud Boys groups stand guard during a memorial for Patriot Prayer member Aaron Jay Danielson on September 5, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. Danielson was shot and killed on Saturday, August 29 during a pro-Trump rally in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Today's Republicans appear to have a bottomless appetite for violence and destruction. It's important to understand that Donald Trump did not create that appetite — although he fed it, encouraged it and shares it.

In his capacity as political cult leader, Trump exemplifies what psychologists describe as "the dark triad" of human behavior: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. His followers idolize and worship him, and all too often seek to imitate his antisocial and pathological behavior.

Ultimately, the relationship between Trumpism, the Republican Party and the American body politic as a whole is akin to a parasitic infection. The infection feeds off the host. The host spreads the infection. Other organisms are infected. The cycle continues, and the parasite lives on. In that sense, today's Republican Party, with its embrace of neofascism, constitutes a public health emergency.

A new nationwide public opinion survey shows just how deeply Republican voters now accept political violence as a legitimate option. Business Insider offers these details:

Less than a year after a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol, nearly half of Republican voters (47%) say that "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands," per a new nationwide survey by George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

Only about 29% of Americans agreed with this statement on some level, the poll found, including just 9% of Democrats. And 49% said they disagree or strongly disagree.

The poll also found that a majority of Republicans (55%) say "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast we may have to use force to save it." About 15% of Democrats agreed with this statement, but more Americans disagreed (46%) than agreed (34%).

More Republicans (27%) than Democrats (18%) said that "strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done."

This is not a new finding. Previous public opinion polls and other research from PRRI, AEI and other organizations have come to similar conclusions.

These findings about Republicans and political violence are consistent with the warnings of many leading mental health experts that Donald Trump and his movement represent a dire threat to American democracy. This is true both because of Trump's obvious mental pathologies — in this case repeated encouragements to violence — and because of his ability to sway members of the public to share his worldview.

In recent conversations with Salon, such mental health experts as Dr. Bandy X. Lee, Dr. Justin Frank and Dr. John Gartner have warned of such a pathological relationship between Donald Trump and his followers.

Gartner, for example, described the dynamic by saying that the "most important" trait shared by Trump and his supporters, as well as "the least recognized," is sadism:

On Jan. 6, during that attack on the Capitol, there was a sense of carnival for Trump's mob. These people were having fun. There was a weird manic joy, a kind of euphoria, pleasure and excitement at harming other people.

Trump is a sadist, but he's also arousing and tapping into the sadism in his right-wing authoritarian followers. He liberates a level of aggressive energy because one of the beliefs of the right-wing extremist is that aggression should be used for dominance and to enforce conformity and submission. And so aggression is sexualized and celebrated. Freud said there were two kinds of energy, sexual and aggressive. So when you liberate aggressive energy, it's euphoric, elating, you feel alive. So these people felt more alive on Jan. 6 than any other day of their lives. ... It is almost as if Trump's followers are sleeper cells waiting to be activated by him or some other similarly inclined leader.

Dr. Frank echoed these concerns, describing Trump's unusual "ability to tap into people's fears and hatred," and suggesting that his followers "are actually scarier than he is": 

Trump unites his supporters in a shared idea of opposition to some other groups or individuals they revile. It doesn't even matter whether they are Black or Muslim or immigrants or migrants from Latin and South America, or Democrats, for that matter. They are all to be dehumanized. Trump has found a way to unite his followers around an impulse to be openly racist and contemptuous, and granted them that freedom. He has normalized hatred among his supporters.

Lee, a psychiatrist who is one of the world's foremost experts on violence, described fascism as "more of a mental pathology at societal scale than a political ideology" in a recent interview with Salon, and said that pathology is now spreading in exponential fashion, as in a pandemic. Medical intervention, she proposed, will be necessary to turn the tide:

Donald Trump's being "gone" has not been much of a remedy because he was allowed to stay in power for so long, and even now we are far from containing him.

Over four years, he had "infected" and hence created many more mini-Trumps, who act individually or at local levels to transmit symptoms.

Indeed, there was rapid escalation of suicides following his election, and we are now seeing homicide levels that reflect his presidency in 2019.  We can mitigate the violence more directly through local means, but a truly preventive intervention needs to happen at the presidential or national level.

Through these processes, right-wing political violence and other antisocial and destructive behavior are gradually becoming normalized across American society. The events of Jan. 6 were a logical next step. As law enforcement and other terrorism experts have repeatedly warned, the evens of Jan. 6  were not the end of a wave of right-wing violence in America but just another stage in a centuries-long journey. The next step could well be a sustained right-wing insurgency against multiracial democracy.

The twin disasters of Trumpism and the COVID plague have accelerated the normalization of violence, death and suffering in the United States to such an extreme that today's Republican Party can legitimately be described as a death cult.

Public opinion surveys which show that Republicans and Trumpists are committed to using violence if "necessary" to "protect" their "way of life" reflect both individual as well as collective values and beliefs. The latter element is especially important given that the Republican Party has engaged in acts of structural and institutional violence against the American people and the world for many decades.

For example, Republicans generally oppose taking steps to address the global climate crisis -- and in fact have consistently made the crisis worse. During Trump's presidency, Republicans engaged in acts of democide through their willfully incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, choices that have now killed more than 600,000 people in the United States.

The Republican response to gun violence (including mass shootings), the health care crisis, education, wealth and income inequality, and social injustice more generally have caused the deaths of millions of Americans since the 1960s. It is no exaggeration to claim that today's Republican Party — and the larger "conservative" movement more generally —is sociopathic.

Many members of the American commentariat and chattering classes have Internalized a norm where they are to appear certain of all things. This false certainty reflects an important social and political fact: The mainstream news media is an integral part of a social and political system that serves the needs of elites before anyone else.

There are also the personal financial rewards, social capital and prestige and other incentives that accrue to public voices who validate the system's governing ideals, including the principle that everything will be OK because America's "institutions" remain strong, and the country is "exceptional". 

As a practical matter, these norms and beliefs mean that many of America's "professional smart people" are incapable of discerning great historical change, or being aware that the world is moving under their feet and the old order is melting away.

The centrists, hope peddlers and stenographers of current events are still searching for ways to explain Trumpism and the rise of neofascism instead of accepting the plain and obvious ones. We certainly have the language to describe a country or a society at the breaking point, where it appears that "the center cannot hold." That language describes America now, caught between ascendant fascism, a weak Democratic Party that cannot or will not act with the "urgency of now" to stop it, and a second wave of the COVID pandemic fueled by the delta variant (and others yet to come).

I write and think about politics for a living. I was also among the few public voices who predicted Trump's victory in 2016 and the hell he would unleash upon the American people and the world. In this moment, when Joe Biden is president but the Age of Trump continues, I am deeply troubled and unsure about the future of American democracy and society. The American people should be very suspicious and critical of anyone who claims to know with certainty what will happen next. In this sense and many others, the American people en masse are lost in the twilight.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Fascism Insurrection Jan. 6 Political Violence Public Opinion Republicans