Increasingly, it seems, Americans have an anger problem. All too many of us now have the urge to use name-calling, violent social-media posts, threats, baseball bats, and guns to do what we once did with persuasion and voting. For example, during the year after Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, threats of violence or even death against lawmakers of both parties increased more than fourfold. And too often, the call to violence seems to come from the top. Recently, defendants in cases involving extremist violence have claimed that an elected leader or pundit “told” them to do it. In a country where a sitting president would lunge at his own security detail in rage, I guess this isn’t so surprising anymore. Emotion rules the American political scene and so many now tend to shoot from the hip without even knowing why.
Increasing numbers of us, however, respond to the growing extremity of the moment by avoiding the latest headlines and civic engagement, fearful that some trauma will befall us, even by witnessing “the news.” As a psychotherapist who works with veterans and military families, I often speak with folks who have decided to limit their news intake or have stopped following the news altogether. Repeated mass shootings in places ranging from schools to houses of worship combined with the increased visibility and influence of militias at theoretically peaceful demonstrations can be more scarring than the wounds soldiers once sustained in combat zones.
I must admit that my family and I have sometimes practiced a similar form of political avoidance. Recently, I considered taking my two young children to the March for Our Lives gun-control event on the National Mall in Washington. However, my spouse, an active duty servicemember, urged me to reconsider. If extremists showed up, it might prove difficult for me alone to get our children out of danger. I thought better of it and stayed home.
In a country where a Republican senatorial candidate can run an ad featuring himself with an armed military tactical unit on a residential street, urging Americans to hunt “RINOS” — Republicans in Name Only, or those who criticize Trump — without widespread censure from his party, I believe my family’s fears are well founded.
The question “What if something happens?” at a protest would never have occurred to either my spouse or me when we first met more than a decade ago.
As a human rights activist who spent years working in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I can say that I’m now more afraid of the hair-trigger responses of right-wing Americans than I was of that Kremlin strongman’s far more carefully targeted violence. I guess the memory of the January 6th Capitol riot, insurrection, coup attempt (or any descriptor of your choice) by a mob of angry Trump supporters still weighs heavily on me.
The Devil’s in the Details
These days, it’s the mundane stuff like Republican Party meetings that contain the details we’d do well to notice. Such proceedings reveal a new level of combativeness as party leaders attempt to shape state and local laws and policies to their ever less democratic desires. For instance, Politico recently obtained recordings of Republican National Committee (RNC) operatives training thousands of volunteer poll watchers to disrupt future elections in Democratic districts of swing states like Michigan by actively challenging the eligibility of voters.
The RNC and its affiliates are linking those poll watchers to hotlines and websitesthat list party-friendly lawyers, police officers, and district attorneys who might be ready to stage real-time interventions during voting and vote counts. For example, district attorneys recruited by the right-wing organization the Amistad Project will be able to start investigations and issue subpoenas ever more quickly.
Of course, the RNC initiative at the polls is rooted in the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. That committee’s identification with such a lie should instantly debunk any idea that such would-be poll watchers could act fairly. The very roles of poll watcher and poll challenger are supposed to be legally different, with only poll challengers authorized to interfere in the voting process in most states, including Michigan – and then only based on facts.
Yet we’re clearly in a world where Republican leaders have begun to treat our polls as war zones. In the spirit of this moment, an RNC election-integrity officer for Michigan, Matthew Seifried, described his future poll volunteers and the public officials supporting them this way: “It’s going to be an army.” He added that his party is “going to have more lawyers than we’ve ever recruited, because let’s be honest, that’s where it’s going to be fought, right?”
Seifried and his Michigan colleagues are anything but alone in their combative rhetoric. Such militarized language and imagery are now all-too-regularly part of our political DNA. Only recently, the Texas Republican Party released a statementrefusing to recognize the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. All too typically, it also called for that state’s Republicans to “go on offense and win the fight for our country!”
In Texas and beyond, individuals expressing such anger (and sometimes a vision of a future white ethno-state as well) are gaining elected office. Surprising numbers of Republican candidates and public officials who share the view that the 2020 election was stolen also regularly echo the white racist Great Replacement Theory. Meanwhile, across the country, multiple electoral bills are being considered by Republican-controlled state legislatures that would, in the future, enable them to overturn elections.
According to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, 45 state legislatures have considered 230 bills that would criminalize the “threat” of violent leftist or Black protests. And sadly enough, far-right activists are anything but a “fringe minority” movement as they challenge the very idea of peaceful elections and public protests (that aren’t theirs).
To be sure, left-wing violence and combative rhetoric is a thing in this country, albeit a small one. The shooting of a Trump supporter by an Antifa protester in Portland, Oregon, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in August 2020 is the lone example of a lethal attack by that left-wing group or other anti-fascists over the past 25 years. Of 450 murders by political extremists during the last decade, approximately 4% of them were committed by left-wing groups and about 75% by right-wing (white supremacist, anti-government) ones.
In my own extended family of parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles, most of whom support Trump, about half have stopped speaking to me, while some have called me “weak” and a “coward” on social media because of the ideas I discuss in essays like this, where I’ve openly criticized the U.S. government and its military. (Of note, my immediate military family and friends accept our differences far more gracefully.)
So, what are we to do? As a start, given where the Trumpist movement and much of the Republican Party seems to be heading, we really need to do something — almost anything. As Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, pointed out, facing the growing crisis on the right, “I have seen no significant increase in support from national party leaders than what we experienced in 2018” when party vigilance was significant enough but not nearly what was needed.
A headline of an article in the satirical online newspaper The Onion caught the mood of the moment among progressives: “Left Wing Group Too Disorganized for FBI Agents to Infiltrate.” In it, a fictional FBI agent says, “These people don’t ever do anything violent — they don’t ever do anything at all.”
Recently, a local Democratic candidate in Maryland knocked on my door seeking my name and contact information as a possible volunteer for his campaign. It turned out, however, he wasn’t even carrying a pen or paper. That seemed to capture the problem I often note in progressive activism these days. I gave him a couple of our first grader’s overdue library slips to write on and a marker we had lying around. And it’s sadly true that Democrats and progressives more generally lack a concerted response to right-wing anger and violence.
Ironically, one government institution that has at least made a nod toward countering right-wing violence is our military. Since the January 6th attacks, the Department of Defense under Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has acknowledged an increase in domestic extremist violence carried out by active-duty or reserve service members. In response, he initiated a multipronged strategy to screen new recruits, educate military personnel about extremism, and begin investigating extremist activity within the ranks.
While I’ve encountered my share of bigoted remarks in the five duty stations where we’ve served, I’ve also met far more people in those military communities than in civilian ones who are willing to form friendships with those of different ideological leanings. When you depend on one another for companionship and even survival, at home or abroad, you can’t be too choosy about the beliefs of your companions.
As partisan rhetoric heats up in this country, I’d say progressives are guilty of focusing too hard on the most politicized identity issues, however valuable, or even whatever asinine behavior ignites our airwaves at a given moment, be it Trump’s QAnon-style conspiracy-mongering or ex-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s groping. The problem is that, as the Trumpists ramp up their anger, if progressives don’t find a unifying message of community and love, and find it soon, the guns already out there may be put to use in unspeakable ways.
Progressives would do well to step back and think about the genuine big-tent issues like how to show everyone from white suburban women to rural farmers to Black single parents that they have so much to lose in life if we don’t have a government willing to continue regulating health care and doing so in a far better fashion. They would gain so much if, in this all-too-angry country of ours, they could refocus our attention on the importance of childcare for every family who needs it.
Above all, if they could focus in an intense way on the ever more dangerous world we’re living in, that would be a positive. Whether or not we agree on what’s causing global warming, it’s hard not to agree right now that we’re living in an ever hotter, ever more drought-stricken, ever more extreme America. Who can’t agree that it’s already damn hot and the summer’s just beginning?
Something needs to be done — and soon — to mitigate the effects of climate change, but no political campaign has yet emerged that captures the urgency and extremity (and for once I’m not thinking about Donald Trump!) of this moment. Most immediately, those of us who favor democracy and a better planet would do well to support the criminal prosecution of former President Trump because if he becomes this country’s leader again, we could find ourselves in trouble too deep to ever get out of.
And yes, on so many issues, many of us may not agree with Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, the top Republican on the House committee investigating the January 6th attacks, or even former Vice President Mike Pence, who risked his own life and his family’s to certify Joe Biden’s victory. But I agree with Democratic Representative Jaimie Raskin that they’re among the Republican heroes of this Trumpian moment (who are few and far between). As the Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes right through the human heart.”
Occupying the hearts of many Americans, however, is Donald Trump, a damaged man who personifies our basest instincts. He needs to be identified forcefully by leaders of all stripes as the threat to democracy he is. (Hurry up, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and bring charges against him!)
Meanwhile, we should all seek opportunities to find common ground among ideological opposites. Invite over a neighbor for dinner, even though you know he listens to conservative radio on his way to work. Help another family with childcare even though the political signs on their lawn aren’t ones you agree with. Just try to avoid the angry, armed ones or have them check their guns at the door. They’re the ones who need to change their tactics. Otherwise, judging by the flight of tens of thousands of highly skilled Russian professionals from Vladimir Putin’s war-mongering regime, I’m sure he has a few job openings for them.
If only their hatred had no place here. It’s time to be less angry and far more focused.
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.