"Highly connected": How the right's political violence relates to a rise in criminal violence

"The strongest variable predicting a rise in the murder rate is trust in fellow Americans," says Rachel Kleinfeld

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 2, 2023 6:01AM (EDT)

Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump gather outside the courthouse where Trump will have his arraignment on April 4, 2023 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump gather outside the courthouse where Trump will have his arraignment on April 4, 2023 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is a very violent man. He is the leader of an increasingly violent political movement.

Last week, Trump threatened Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley with death. Trump's death threat is part of a much larger pattern where he has made similar threats, directly or implied, against President Biden, Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Special Counsel Jack Smith, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and his other "enemies."

Trump's MAGA cultists have been radicalized by him. Several MAGA people have gone so far as to have attempted or publicly threatened to assassinate President Obama and President Biden, respectively. And of course, Trump's followers launched a lethal attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 as part of the ex-president and dictator in waiting's coup attempt.

Trump and his allies and other spokespeople and influentials in the Republican fascist party and larger neofascist movement and white right are at the epicenter of a social environment in America were hate crimes and other political violence against Black and brown people, the LGBTQI community, Muslims, Jews, and other targeted groups is at historic levels.

New research by Rachel Kleinfeld, who is Senior Fellow, Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, provides much-needed insight(s) into the growing danger(s) that political violence and polarization poses to American democracy and the future of the country. In this conversation, Kleinfeld provides context for the relationship between extremism, polarization and violence in America. She also explains why right-wing political violence is a much greater threat to the country than political violence by "the left". Kleinfeld highlights the news media's continued failure(s) to understand the realities of the country's democracy crisis in the Age of Trump.

At the end of this conversation, Kleinfeld warns that whatever the outcome of the 2024 Election, that America's democracy crisis is likely to get worse not better.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling given the state of American politics and society and the country's democracy crisis and other great troubles?

I'm feeling sad. I want to give my daughters – and other kids – a better country than the one I grew up in. I don't feel like we are doing that, and I want all of us adults to start acting like adults and to do better.

What are you "seeing" as you survey American politics and society right now? What gives you the most concern?

Americans remain rhetorically attached to democracy, but when you ask them what they mean, large majorities are quick to give up basic rights, oversight, and even non-violence when their side holds power. And the idea of a loyal opposition is disintegrating. I'm deeply concerned by that impulse towards unchecked majoritarianism, and also worried about hypocritical alterations of those feelings when the other side is in power.

What are some of the blind spots, misconceptions, and outright ignorance that the mainstream media, the political class, and everyday Americans have about the realities of political violence in this country?  

People seem to underestimate how much political violence has risen, and how lopsided it is. There are vastly more incidents on the right, and they are targeting people. That is the major political violence problem faced by the country. That said, on the left, too many partisans are loathe to acknowledge that their side's violence, though largely against property, has also doubled since 2016. It has just grown from a much lower point.

I get constant calls from reporters asking if Donald Trump is going to start another January 6 style riot – and when I speak about political violence, my mail fills with people asking why I don't speak more about the overwhelmingly (but not entirely) peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.

But Trump is not currently able to draw out large crowds – his followers are afraid of the FBI and believe people who goad them to violence on list serves are false flag operations. Instead, we are seeing people kill neighbors over politics or murder business owners who display a pride flag. In other countries, when someone runs a car into a peaceful crowd, it's almost always a rare international terrorist event. In America, that has happened over 150 times since Heather Heyer was killed at the Unite the Right rally. Political violence and credible threats have become small scale, hyperlocal, across the nation, and extremely frequent

Premeditated political violence against people has skyrocketed on the right, and premeditated political violence on the left has also grown - though from a much lower point, and more often targeting property. Hate crimes are at their highest point in the 21st century, even higher than the spike after 9/11. Local officials who were barely targeted before are now receiving significant numbers of threats – in San Diego, 75% of county officials report threats or harassment, for instance. Threats against Members of Congress rose tenfold from 2016 to 2021, though they fell slightly last year.  In the 1960s and 1970s we faced high levels of political violence, but it was largely against property, or involved foreign terrorists. We haven't seen Americans targeting other Americans politically like this since Confederates reversed Reconstruction and used violence and threats to return to power after the Civil War.

The news media and the political class tend to have a crisis frame that is very immediate and focused on the now. What would the news media – and by extension the political class and public — better understand and see in terms of political polarization and violence if they had a longer view and more time to digest what is happening or not?

America has faced political violence at many points in its history. It is usually used as a method alongside elections to try to win power by intimidating people. That is how it was used by the Know Nothing Party in the early 1800s, by Confederates after Reconstruction, and by Southern Democrats under Jim Crow to maintain single party dominance in eleven Southern States.

Right now, the threat of violence is being used to destroy pro-democracy Republicans and allow a non-majority faction to take over the Republican Party. While there are more threats overall against Democratic constituencies, women, and minorities, those threats are a spill-over from attempts to build Republican base intensity through highlighting a white Christian male dominant identity. The targeted threats are occurring largely to win power and are often targeted very intentionally – against certain election officials who will matter in swing states, or against the judges and DAs involved in cases against former President Trump. 

The spike in violence is helping an anti-democratic faction of the Republican Party overcome a pro-democratic faction. The media framing violence as largely about Republicans versus Democrats misses that crucial part of the story.

What does the actual data tell us about political violence and extremism in the Age of Trump and where we are potentially going as a country?

Political violence and criminal violence are highly connected.

The best study of murder in America back to our Revolution found that the strongest variables predicting a rise in the murder rate was trust in fellow Americans and trust in government – especially among young men (the demographic that commits most violence everywhere). In the 1960s when political violence rose, America also saw a doubling of the murder rate, and homicide kept rising until the 1990s. When people normalize violence and lesser forms of anti-social behavior, such as Lauren Boebert's obnoxious vaping and groping at a theater, oafishness on airplanes, or "rolling coal" – blowing car exhaust in the faces of bicyclists – it reduces the sense of social propriety and impulse control. Society and civilization are actually very fragile things – as anti-social behavior gets normalized and people "let it all hang out", as it were, all forms of violence tend to rise. We are probably on the verge of that again, and this MAGA political faction and left-wing illiberalism pushing people towards it will be to blame for the deaths and dystopian cities we are going to have for the next few decades.

When I write articles or interview experts who are trying to sound the alarm about right-wing political violence by Trump followers and other such malign actors, one of the common responses in emails and comments is that this is all so much hysterics. The MAGA movement threat is exaggerated. These right-wing extremists and others who are violent are being put in jail. The danger is also so much talk as there won't be a second civil war, etc. How would you intervene and push back?

I just provide the numbers. It's not that these levels of political violence are unprecedented – America is an unusually violent democracy compared to countries with similar levels of wealth and democratic history. The United States has seen violence at these levels before. But New York in the 1970s, or the post-Reconstruction South which had a lynching every 36 hours at its height, would not be the periods of our past I most want our country to revisit.

Is the American public "polarized" or are they "sorted"? That distinction is very important.

American politicians are highly ideologically polarized – members of Congress now hold virtually no policy beliefs in common across the aisle. Regular Americans, on the other hand, are not very ideologically polarized – they hold a lot of policy beliefs in common, although Republicans and Democrats care more intensely about different issues. But regular Americans do really dislike partisans from the other party – which is known as affective, or emotional, polarization. That level of affective polarization is likely to be caused, at least partially, because we are highly sorted as a country. When multiple identity characteristics, such as religiosity, geography, gender, and race, are the same for members of the same party, it is easier to feel that any of one's many identities are threatened by members of the other party, and when people are geographically separated so that they don't socialize, those misunderstandings get even larger. However, sorting alone just sets the kindling - politicians are lighting the flames by using that latent affective polarization to further inflame sentiment, in order to use that voter intensity to win power. So, it is unlikely to be possible to reduce Americans' polarization until we change the incentives that are allowing politicians to win seats by furthering polarization.

Most journalists and reporters assume that the public follows politics closely, is ideological, and has a real understanding of the details and facts. Decades of political science research shows that mostly to not be true. Unfortunately, the mainstream media, for a variety of reasons including intellectual laziness and careerism, is clinging desperately onto those fictions of folk democracy even when the evidence is abundant and obvious to the contrary. This translates into a news media that still does not fully appreciate — and is in willful denial about — the realities and the depths of the country's democracy crisis in this moment of ascendant neofascism and illiberalism.

Americans share a large number of policy beliefs in common. But they also, by and large, really, really don't care about politics. They don't want to think about politics, they don't want to talk about politics, they want it all to go away. That means that Americans also hold a very tenuous understanding of the basics of what it takes to maintain a democracy – such as the importance of a free press, or the role of a civil service. In America, as in many countries where democracy has slipped away in recent years, we see significant pluralities willing to support anti-democratic behavior when their party is in power. Fear of the other side doing just that is one of the main forces that empowers a party to act first to undermine democracy in order to, in their minds, prevent the other side from doing it first.

Is "consensus" and "bipartisanship" across lines of political difference just a type of fetish for the political class and news media? The public generally does not care.

I have my own strong policy beliefs – but I understand that as a country, we have about half the voting population who are conservative, and about half who are more liberal. Both sides need politicians who can represent them in a pro-democratic way, where we disagree on policy, not on whether we will allow the system of peacefully settling our disputes to disintegrate. Liberals need to give some support to pro-democracy Republicans or both will be overrun by the anti-democracy faction that is gaining control over that party. Liberals should also pay more attention to how their own illiberal wing in cultural and academic institutions is driving more conservatives, independents, and minorities to support their own anti-democratic faction. The problem in the political realm is clearly a faction of the Republican Party – but it has not grown on its own, there is a call and response with cultural forces on the left.

What are some interventions that can be made to make the country's political institutions and culture more durable and healthier in the face of the type of extreme polarization – which is asymmetrical and more on the right— that we are now seeing in the Age of Trump and the decades that got us to this crisis?

America should give serious thought to voting reforms that would allow the anti-democratic faction to have representation without letting them take over one of our two major parties. Proportional representation is the best way to achieve that, though ranked choice voting and primary reform might be less radical and cause fewer governing headaches. Both would likely allow MAGA Republicans to have control in some states and localities (which, of course, they do now), while still allowing the majority of Republicans to support a pro-democracy party. Campaign finance reforms that empower small dollar donors also empower extremists, who are better at raising anger that gets those small dollar donations flowing. Big money in politics is also problematic, of course, but the problem of small dollar donors pushing our politics towards extremes has not been recognized or discussed. Finally, we need better anti-trust enforcement to break business monopolies. Part of the distrust in America since 2008 has as much to do with the way elites keep making money, and is economic as much as political in origin. There is a reason Aristotle and Jefferson both recognized the dangers to democracy of large concentrations of wealth.

As Trump's criminal trials and the 2024 Election approach, how do you think that will impact the dynamics of violence and polarization?

There is no good way out of the 2024 Election. No matter how the election turns out, it will harm faith in democracy – but the worst future damage is likely to be inflicted if Trump wins and takes power, given the signals he has already given about how he will misuse his department of justice against his enemies, attack the civil service, and otherwise damage the institutions that keep our democracy tethered to the rule of law.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega