COMMENTARY

Doomsday? Nearly half of "strong Republicans" believe it's almost time for armed violence

New survey of "extreme polarization and alienation" is dark but not surprising: Americans really hate each other

Published July 27, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Armed supporters of President Trump chant during a protest on January 6, 2021 in Salem, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
Armed supporters of President Trump chant during a protest on January 6, 2021 in Salem, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

America in the Age of Trump and ascendant fascism is a political volcano.

Specifically, America in this moment is a type of "gray volcano".

As explained in the new documentary "Fire of Love", these are the real killers: they are full of unpredictable primal ferocity because of the pressures created when tectonic plates collide, the gases build up, eventually causing a massive explosion.

Jan. 6 and Trump's coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol by his followers was one such eruption. There will in all probability soon be larger ones.

The University of Chicago's Institute of Politics (IOP) surveyed 1,000 registered voters between May 19 and May 23. Its findings are another alarm about America's worsening democracy crisis, summarized in a new report called "Our Precarious Democracy: Extreme Polarization and Alienation in Our Politics." Here are some of its conclusions:

A majority of Americans agree that the government is "corrupt and rigged against everyday people like me." In the aggregate, two-thirds of Independent and Republican voter believe that the government is "rigged" and "corrupt" against people like them while Democrats are evenly split on the question.

A majority of respondents report that they "generally trust" the country's elections are conducted "fairly" and "counted accurately." But the partisan divides are extreme. Approximately 80 percent of Democrats hold these beliefs while only a third or so of Republicans believe that the country's election are fair and trustworthy. That number is even lower for Trump voters.

The IOP's findings are especially troubling for what they suggest about the legitimacy of the country's governing institutions and democracy, and about the growing possibility of widespread political violence and other unrest:

Nearly half of Americans (49 percent) agreed that they "more and more feel like a stranger in my own country," with 69 percent of strong Republicans and 65 percent who call themselves "very conservative" leading the way. Fully 38 percent of strong Democrats agreed.

About three-quarters (73 percent) of voters who identify themselves as Republican agree that "Democrats are generally bullies who want to impose their political beliefs on those who disagree." An almost identical percentage of Democrats (74 percent) express that view of Republicans. A similarly lopsided majority of each party holds that members of the other are "generally untruthful and are pushing disinformation."

As seen on Jan. 6, 2021, with Donald Trump's coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol by his followers, America's democracy crisis is also being accelerated by a Republican-fascist and larger "conservative" movement that embraces political violence as a way of advancing its revolutionary goals. On this, the IOP warns:

And 28 percent of voters, including 37 percent who have guns in their homes, agree that "it may be necessary at some point soon for citizens to take up arms against the government." That view is held by one in three Republicans, including 45 percent of self-identified strong Republicans. Roughly one in three (35 percent) Independent voters and one in five Democrats agreed.

These findings complement other social science research and polling which has repeatedly shown that a plurality, if not a majority, of Republicans (and Trump supporters specifically) are prepared to support or condone political violence against the Democrats, the Biden administration and other "enemies" in order to protect what they understand as America's "traditional values."

Experts in international relations, terrorism, law enforcement and related fields have also quantified the level of risk that the country faces from an increasingly radicalized and violent Republican-fascist movement. Some estimates suggest that tens of millions of Americans would take up arms against the country's multiracial democracy — no doubt describing their actions as "patriotism" or fighting back against "the deep state" — if commanded to by Donald Trump or other right-wing leaders and violence entrepreneurs.


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As political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason told Salon, this embrace of violence by the Republican-fascists reflects a larger trend in American society:

We found steadily rising levels of support for partisan violence from our first survey in 2017 through our last ... in February 2021. Our vilifying questions for partisan moral disengagement also steadily rose over that time. Support for threats against leaders and citizens were a little more variable, rising at times of greatest contention and then dropping afterward. Those results tell us that, even within our current contentious period, those radical views are becoming more prevalent.

The trends in our survey work generally comport with rising levels of threats against leaders. For example, the Los Angeles Times cataloged steadily rising threats against Congress from 2016, when they numbered just under 1,000, to 2021, when they nearly reached 10,0000 — an order of magnitude more in just four years.

The most lucid insights into the political and social dynamics of a given society — especially one in the midst of a democracy crisis — come from a combination of quantitative and qualitative research. These types of descriptions help to create a more comprehensive narrative and picture of the public mood by highlighting both the big picture and also the more granular details of how individuals and groups are experiencing this moment of great change and disruption. Journalistic accounts and other types of reporting can be especially important aspects of this truth-telling project, helping to make complex social dynamics and questions of power more legible.

A new article at the Washington Post details how Republicans are increasingly obsessed with or compelled toward a second American civil war and other forms of violence. Here is a Republican candidate for Maryland attorney general:

Days before Maryland's July 19 primary, Michael Peroutka stood up at an Italian restaurant in Rockville and imagined how a foreign enemy might attack America.

"We would expect them to make our borders porous," Peroutka told the crowd, which had come to hear the Republicans running for state attorney general. "We would expect them to make our cities unsafe places to live. We would expect them to try to ruin our economy." The country was "at war," he explained, "and the enemy has co-opted members and agencies and agents of our government."

On Tuesday, Peroutka easily dispatched a more moderate Republican to win the nomination. State Del. Dan Cox, who won Donald Trump's endorsement after supporting the former president's effort to subvert the 2020 election, also dispatched a Republican endorsed by the state's popular governor, Larry Hogan.

Both candidates described a country that was not merely in trouble, but being destroyed by leaders who despise most Americans — effectively part of a civil war. In both swing states and safe seats, many Republicans say that liberals hate them personally and may turn rioters or a police state on people who disobey them.

This article also describes a new political ad from Catholic Vote, "a conservative group spending $3 million this month to target vulnerable Democratic members of the House, which focuses on an "alleged assassination plot" against Justice Brett Kavanaugh. "Radical liberals are behaving like terrorists, calling for a summer of rage," says the ad's narrator. "An assassination attempt on a Supreme Court justice. Domestic terrorists calling it 'open season.'" 

J.D. Vance, the bestselling author and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Ohio, has "argued that the rise in fentanyl deaths looks like an 'intentional' result of the Biden administration's border policies — a way for an unpopular president to 'punish the people who didn't vote for him'."

Such reporting is essential, but should be approached with great caution because those kinds of narrative frameworks, prey to the journalistic clichés of "balance" and "fairness," risk normalizing fascism and other forms of right-wing extremism. The same Washington Post article offers this comparison:

The rhetoric is bracing, if not entirely new. Liberal commentators made liberal use of the word "fascism" to describe Trump's presidency. The baseless theory that President Barack Obama was undermining American power as a foreign agent was popular with some Republicans, including Trump, who succeeded Obama in the White House.

Many Democrats saw the backlash to Obama as specific to his race, and saw Biden as unlikely to inspire mass opposition to Trump in the presidential election. But many Republicans also portray Biden as a malevolent figure — a vessel for a hateful leftist campaign to weaken America.

The facts are that Trump, the current Republican Party and the larger movement meet the definition of fascism. Birtherism and other right-wing conspiracy theories that Barack Obama was a "foreign agent" (i.e., not white and therefore a type of usurper) are manifestations of white supremacy and white racial paranoia.

Political scientists and other experts have repeatedly shown that the backlash against Obama was a function of white racism and racial resentment. Such values and beliefs disproportionately shaped support for Donald Trump and the current Republican-fascist movement.

Calling Donald Trump a fascist is not "bracing rhetoric." It is true. Accusing Barack Obama of being a "foreign agent" is not just "backlash." It's a manifestation of racist paranoia.

Joe Biden is not, by any reasonable criteria, waging a "hateful leftist campaign to weaken America." Across many decades of public service, Biden has shown himself to be an agent of neoliberalism, a moderate "uniter" desperate for compromise and bipartisanship who has supported many of the Republican Party's policies and positions, and frequently says that some of its leaders are his friends.

Allowing for those shortcomings, the new Washington Post article remains important because it highlights how Republicans and members of the larger white right actually believe that they are morally righteous victims who are justified if they turn to violence. This dynamic is frequently seen in societies descending into political turmoil. Here is David Kilcullen, an expert on counterinsurgency and military strategy, from my conversation with him for Salon in November 2020:

[I]f the United States wants to avoid where it looks like it is all heading toward, with political violence, there needs to be reconciliation and listening and compromise. As I see it the problem is that the media environment is so polarized — which includes social media — that the situation is like a non-overlapping Venn diagram. People on the right are looking at a completely different reality than the people who are on the left. There is very little overlap, to the point where basic facts are not in agreement. The right wing and the left wing in America disagree on the nature of reality. An echo chamber has replaced consensus knowledge of the world….

Many of the right-wing militias have only five or 10 members. They are very small, and they are also very defensive-minded. Likewise, on the left much has been made of Redneck Revolt and the John Brown gun clubs. They too are defensive and are trying to protect people on the streets from the possibility of violence.

Now, that does not mean they're not violent. Analysts often look for hate as the key driver of violence. But the research on civil war and our experiences with counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare generally shows that most of the worst atrocities are not driven by hate. They are instead driven by fear. Obviously, that fear can be a much bigger problem when there is a spark that triggers violence.                           

And then there are the insurgents. They are at the top of the threat pyramid. We have not really seen any of that type of action in the United States. That is why the country at present is in a "pre-insurgency" or "incipient" state of insurgency.

The American people know something is wrong with their country and society. There is an abundance of empirical evidence to show in clear, uncertain terms that American democracy and the larger society face an existential challenge and worsening threat from today's Republican Party and larger "conservative" movement.

Fascism and right-wing political violence are not "on the horizon" or "approaching," as too many among the mainstream news media continue to suggest: They are here now and will only get worse. Framing those facts as if they were unanswered questions enables the Republican-fascist movement. Pro-democracy Americans must move from a position of reaction, passivity and denial to a proactive posture, and go on offense in the war to save America's future and their own.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics 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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