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Are we entering a new era of political violence?

“We are in very dangerous territory.”

A supporter of US President Donald Trump wears a gas mask as he protests after storming the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

A mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, leading to evacuations of lawmakers and at least four deaths — a surreal, embarrassing scene that felt like a predictable finale to this whole sordid era.

There’s a debate about whether to call the events of Wednesday a “coup” (before this attack, I was skeptical of throwing that term around; now I’m not), but one thing is certain: The Capitol being breached has not happened before in American history. There was a British raid on the Capitol during the War of 1812, but those were foreign troops, not American citizens.

A monumental question is whether we’re on the brink of something much worse. Was this just a flash of violence incited by a reckless president — or the start of a very ugly and dangerous period of American history, something akin to the 1850s before the Civil War?

To think this through, I reached out to Nathan Kalmoe, a political scientist at Louisiana State University and the author of With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War. Kalmoe’s work focuses on the relationship between partisanship and violence throughout American history. So I asked him to put this moment in context and compare it to previous eras of chaos in American politics. What I really wanted to know is whether this strikes him as the end of something nasty — or the start of something far nastier.

A lightly edited transcript of our exchange follows.

Sean Illing

In the history of American politics, how unprecedented is what we witnessed today? What are the closest parallels?

Nathan Kalmoe

Most folks don’t realize just how many historical parallels we have for this moment, though none are recent. Our party identities are largely aligned by race and religion, similar to how they did in the second half of the 19th century, which, not coincidentally, was full of racial-partisan violence. Political scientist Lily Mason’s work on public opinion shows that those alignments supercharge partisan animosities.

One parallel within Congress itself was in the 1850s, just before the Civil War. That involved dozens of violent attacks and fights with weapons drawn among members of Congress, which historian Joanne Freeman has written eloquently about.

The Civil War was the most extreme example of election rejection, by Southern Democrats against Lincoln’s election, though they did not claim any fraud to justify their rebellion. That violence ultimately killed three-quarters of a million Americans. What many people don’t realize is that there were substantial levels of violent partisanship in the North during that time, including insurrection plots by high-level Democrats.

Violence nearly broke out after the contested 1876 election, with Democrats calling for the coronation of their own candidate: “Tilden or blood!” President Grant called in the military to defend the US Capitol, but it was not ultimately besieged.

Of course, Reconstruction and Jim Crow were full of racial violence, which was also partisan violence, given the alignment of race and party in the South. That period included thousands of murders by white supremacists who killed Black Republicans and their allies in efforts to intimidate voters and election officials. There were even attempts to overthrow state and local governments following elections in Louisiana and North Carolina.

A more recent case with opposite moral valence was when armed Black Panthers took over the California state legislature in 1967.

Needless to say, we are in very dangerous territory.

Sean Illing

You specialize in partisanship and violence, but is partisanship the problem here? Or are we really talking about asymmetric radicalization?

Nathan Kalmoe

The biggest problem we face is not partisan polarization or even asymmetric polarization. The core of our political dysfunction is that the Republican Party has increasingly become an anti-democratic party, which refuses to accept the legitimacy of its opponents or the supremacy of popular sovereignty that defines a democracy.

In this way, Republicans are continuing in the tradition of Southern Democrats from the 1850s onward. White Southerners were the core of the Democratic Party until Northern Democrats embraced civil rights in the mid-20th century, at which point white Southerners abandoned the national Democratic Party for the Republican Party, which welcomed them with open arms. That period involved enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which limited the extent to which white Southerners and others could disenfranchise their Black neighbors. It was the first period when the US might be considered a democracy.

Republican party nomination reforms, reaction to the first Black president, increased sorting of social and political identities, and the end of VRA [Voting Rights Act] protections by Republicans on the Supreme Court have brought us where we are today.

Sean Illing

The role of political elites (like Trump) and right-wing media grifters in feeding the resentment and hysteria that led to this moment is a major part of this story. Is this a familiar pattern in American history?

Nathan Kalmoe

Republican Party leaders absolutely bear responsibility for stoking these actions. Today, I heard a Wisconsin Republican congressman put it best: His colleagues objecting to Biden’s election were hoping to have it both ways — stoke their base with no consequences. Well, as both he and Biden said today, those words have very real consequences.

American history is littered with demagogues similar to Trump, but they have rarely controlled a major political party and never led the United States as president. The closest parallel is probably the Southern “Fire-Eaters” who were rabid advocates of enslavement and secession before the Civil War. They were vociferously supported by their partisan press, which has some parallels to that corner of today’s media landscape.

Political parties have generally used their control of the nomination process to keep the most dangerous extremists out of their top positions. Devolving nominations to party voters raised the risks of elevating a demagogue. That’s not to say there have never been other dangerous, racist party leaders who did grave harm. Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson come to mind. It might be hard to say for sure which kind is more damaging, but demagogues like Trump certainly seem more volatile in ways that can be maximally dangerous.

Sean Illing

You’re an expert on political media, and the thing that I find so strange about this clash is that it’s not really an ideological battle. We have a subset of the country that lives in an alternate reality in which the presidential election was stolen, and they’re reacting against that non-event. That part of it has to be unprecedented, right?

Nathan Kalmoe

You’re right — this is all about partisanship and other social identities, like race and religion. And, for Republicans, it’s motivated by a dawning recognition that white Christians will not be able to hold on to their disproportionate power much longer.

Ideology is not a major motivating factor in the general public. Lots of people call themselves liberal or conservative, but those are mostly alternative labels for their partisanship. Most don’t hold an organized set of consistently liberal or conservative positions and don’t really hold steadfastly to most policy views over time, with a few exceptions related to group attitudes and identities. They don’t derive their views from values.

Instead, most people initially turn to parents and then social group leaders for guidance on the party they should support. Then they adopt the positions told them by those leaders, to the extent they pay enough attention.

A minority of Democrats and Republicans are heavy consumers of partisan media, but it’s mostly Republicans who find themselves in partisan echo chambers. Democratic media are grounded in reality in a way the Republican media increasingly are not. And Democrats are much more likely to supplement their partisan consumption with traditional nonpartisan news media.

Republicans launched a multi-decade project in the mid-20th century to convince their followers not to trust any source but the party and associated leaders of social groups. That effort has succeeded to such a large extent that you have millions of Republicans who will believe absolutely anything their leaders tell them. This isn’t because Republicans are dumb — I expect the same would eventually happen to Democrats if their leaders undertook the same effort.

Sean Illing

Do you worry that we’re entering a new era of political violence?

Nathan Kalmoe

I’m extremely worried about the risk of more widespread and deadly violence. Republicans are just now starting to realize they won’t be keeping power, contrary to what their leaders have been telling them. The violence at the Capitol today is the most visible explosion of that realization. However, there have been plenty of death threats against a wide range of state leaders, including Republicans resisting the coup. They simply can’t accept losing, or even the possibility that they could lose. And their leaders have been encouraging them nearly every step of the way.

Some Republicans sound shocked at what occurred today. It is shocking to see but utterly predictable, given what the president and his allies in government and media have been saying daily for months and years. This kind of violent outburst was almost certain to happen in some form, and unfortunately even more violence is likely.

Sean Illing

If violence does escalate, if we do fall into a cycle of violence and retaliation, how do we walk it back? How have we walked it back in the past?

Nathan Kalmoe

Cycles of violence are a major risk — violence can spiral out of control very quickly, shocking everyone involved. We have lots of historical and cross-national examples of tit-for-tat escalation.

The democracy group Bright Line Watch conducted a survey in October asking about support for violence by one’s own party. About 15 percent said it might be at least occasionally okay for their own party to use violence today. When asked if their party loses the presidential election, it rose to about 25 percent. And when asked if the other party gets violent first, it rose to over 40 percent. Reciprocal violence is a huge risk.

Lily and I have survey experiments showing that deescalating rhetoric from Biden (but not Trump) can reduce support for extreme partisan views including violence, and those effects appeared among both Democrats and Republicans. We need to remember, though, that violence is a terrible outcome, but the loss of democracy is far worse. We shouldn’t be afraid to use the appropriate means to suppress violent attacks on democracy. To do otherwise is to give in to terrorists. The Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow show the importance of force in resisting authoritarian violence and the consequences of giving up on democracy.

The most peaceful partisan period in the last 170 years was when Republicans gave up on enforcing the Constitution in the South by force. They allowed white Southerners to create authoritarian enclaves that endured for nearly a century, before federal force ultimately brought the Constitution back in the mid-20th century, after successful pressure from the civil rights movement.

Likewise, the harmonious bipartisanship of the mid-20th century that everyone is so fond of is built on a bipartisan agreement to accept white supremacy without argument. We can’t have that anymore. But refusing to accept it means we have to accept the conflict that inevitably comes by confronting white supremacy and advancing the project of American democratization against its partisan enemies.

Sean Illing

Is that to say that if Trump (and other Republicans) were to use deescalation rhetoric, it would make no difference?

Nathan Kalmoe

We think it’s essential for Trump and other Republicans to use as much deescalating rhetoric as possible, even if we didn’t find effects for a single message in this case. We have more recent tests from this fall in which both Trump and Biden messages had a pacifying effect, but only for Democrats. This may be because people simply didn’t believe a message that clashed with what Trump has been saying, or maybe because it couldn’t outweigh the full weight of Republican messaging (including Trump’s) in the opposite direction.

Again, we certainly don’t want our limited tests to be generalized to a broader conclusion that their words don’t matter — quite the opposite. We think Republican leaders are essential in putting an end to all of this by clearly repudiating election conspiracies and violence in messages to the public. Some are already doing so. But the more that don’t, the worse it will be.

Sean Illing

To your final point about the role of violence, are you saying that reciprocal violence may, regrettably, be necessary, presumably from the federal government?

Nathan Kalmoe

Law enforcement needs to do its job in protecting democratically elected leaders, the institutions of government, and the electorate more broadly. At times, that requires using force — even deadly force — to defend against violent attacks seeking to overturn the will of the people. Counter-violence by democracy’s supporters in the public is not necessary if law enforcement agencies do their jobs properly.

Americans are rightly skittish about supporting violence, even in response to violent authoritarian attacks. But US history shows that enforcing and advancing democracy has often required violence — usually by the federal government. Examples include the Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and federal action spurred by the civil rights movement.

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