Here at The Why Axis we’re ringing in the new year with this thoroughly depressing new poll finding: roughly one third of Americans now say that violence against the government can be justified, the highest level on this question in at least a quarter century.
“The view is partisan,” explain the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin. “The new survey finds 40 percent of Republicans, 41 percent of independents and 23 percent of Democrats saying violence is sometimes justified.”
Indeed, that partisan split is a relatively recent phenomenon. As recently as October of 2015 just 18 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of Republicans espoused that view, a 4-point split that’s well within the margin of error for those subgroups.
During the Trump era, in other words, Republican acceptance of political violence nearly doubled.
(Wondering how the 2015 value for both Democrats and Republicans can be below the total support? That was due to the relatively high enthusiasm for violence among independents (27%) that year, which brought the overall average up a bit.)
There are plenty of caveats to go around here. Support for real-world violence in questions like these is probably overstated — when you ask about specific violent or illegal acts, you tend to get less acceptance. Also it’s maybe not that hard to imagine a hypothetical situation in which violence against the government would be an act of justice — the country was founded on the violent overthrow of colonial masters, for instance.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that imagining just such a situation is a lot easier for Americans now than it used to be. Another recent poll, this one by CBS, digs into this a bit by asking respondents which policy issues they think are important enough to justify violence. When it comes to things like election results and gun policy, Trump voters are much more likely to say violence can be justified. Trump voters also have a slight edge in support for violence in response to Covid policy.
On civil rights and labor issues, conversely, Biden voters are slightly more likely to hypothetically accept violence.
But perhaps the most eye-opening finding in the CBS survey is a question on militia formation. Nearly half of Trump supports say it’s acceptable for private citizens to form militias in order to achieve policy goals. Just 15 percent of Biden voters say the same.
Again, we’re mostly in the realm of hypotheticals here. But we don’t have to look far to see how these beliefs influence and reflect real-world actions. The relatively high Trump voter enthusiasm for violent responses to election results is driven, in part, by support within the party for the violent insurrection of January 6 — nearly one quarter of Republicans told CBS they had a favorable opinion of the people who forced their way into the Capitol, 47 percent characterized the attack as an act of patriotism, and 56 percent said the rioters were “defending freedom.”
It’s also the case that you only need a few violent assholes to create an atmosphere of menace and intimidation. While 9 in 10 Trump voters said intimidating people or threatening them with violence were unacceptable, news outlets and law enforcement groups have documented hundreds, perhaps thousands of violent threats against innocent election works all around the country in the wake of last November’s elections. Virtually all of them came from conspiracy-addled Trump supporters. Many elections experts are worried that in the coming years these threats will increasingly translate into a real-world violence.
The blame for most of these troubling trends needs to be placed squarely at the feet of Trump himself, the would-be strongman who fills his supporters’ minds with lies and conspiracy theories and urges them to take the law into their own hands to do his bidding. Republican leaders, for their part, have been willing, often enthusiastic participants in the party’s debasement. Don’t overlook the role of Mitch McConnell, who has spent the past 6 years quietly enabling Trump’s worst abuses of power.
If you’re wondering where all this ends you’re not alone. A year ago I would have said that it would take an event that truly shocks the conscience — like the storming of the Capitol, for instance — to shake the GOP out of complacency and convince party leaders to purge the extremists within their ranks. But since then we’ve watched the party openly embrace the insurrection and double down on their loyalty to the man who incited it. I still think nothing short of an appalling act — maybe even an entire era — of partisan violence will bring the GOP to its senses. But in a post-January 6 world it’s terrifying to contemplate what such an act or era might look like.