"We're heading into an extremely tumultuous election season," Robert Pape, a University of Chicago professor and CPOST director, told The Guardian. "What's happening in the United States is political violence is going from the fringe to the mainstream."
Several right-wing candidates who echoed Trump's relentless lies about President Joe Biden's 2020 victory lost in last year's midterms. But more than 210 others—including at least two who participated in the January 6 rally that escalated into an attack on the U.S. Capitol—won congressional seats and races for governor, secretary of state, and attorney general, underscoring the extent to which election denialism is now entrenched in the GOP and jeopardizes U.S. democracy for the foreseeable future.
The CPOST survey conducted in April found that 20% of U.S. adults still believe "the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president," down only slightly from the 26% who said so in 2021.
"What you're seeing is really disturbing levels of distrust in American democracy, support for dangerous conspiracy theories, and support for political violence itself," Pape told The Guardian.
According to the newspaper, Pape compared "sentiments about political violence" to "the kindling for a wildfire." While "many were unaware that the events on January 6 would turn violent, research shows that public support for violence was widespread, so the attacks themselves should not have come as a surprise."
"Once you have support for violence in the mainstream, those are the raw ingredients or the raw combustible material and then speeches, typically by politicians, can set them off," said Pape. "Or if they get going, speeches can encourage them to go further."
Pape pointed out that there was chatter among far-right groups and on online forums about potentially using force to prevent lawmakers from certifying Biden's win, but Trump's January 6 address at the White House Ellipse was the spark that ignited the mob to storm the halls of Congress.
CPOST's latest findings are based on polling completed before Trump was federally indicted Thursday night on seven criminal counts in the special counsel investigation into his handling of classified documents. The charges, including willful retention of national defense secrets, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy, could carry years in prison for the GOP's leading 2024 presidential candidate.
In response to the indictment, several Republican lawmakers rallied to Trump's defense, parroting his dismissal of the probe as a "witch hunt." Fox News personalities also denounced what they called the "weaponization" of the U.S. justice system, while commenters on Breibart opined that "this is how revolution begins."
The menacing language mirrored what was said after the FBI in early August 2022 searched Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort and removed boxes of documents as part of the federal probe into his handling of classified materials.
At the time, many anonymous and some well-known reactionaries called for "civil war" on Twitter, patriots.win, and elsewhere. Soon after, Ricky Shiffer, a Trump loyalist with suspected ties to a far-right group and an unspecified connection to the January 6 insurrection, was shot and killed by police following an hourslong standoff. Shiffer, wielding an AR-15 and a nail gun, allegedly attempted to break into the FBI's Cincinnati office and fled to a nearby field when he was unsuccessful.
Afterward, Trump continued to lie about the Mar-a-Lago search on Truth Social, sparking an "unprecedented" surge in threats against FBI personnel and facilities. In March, just before he was hit with a 34-count felony indictment in the Manhattan district attorney's investigation into alleged hush money payments made during the run-up to the 2016 election, Trump called on his supporters to "protest" and "take our nation back," though right-wing violence did not materialize in that instance.
The Guardian on Friday observed that "it's important to track public sentiment about political violence regularly," noting that CPOST plans to release data from its Dangers to Democracy survey every three months from now until the 2024 election. "The instigating event, usually a speech or comment by a person in power, is unpredictable and can set people off at any moment, but the underlying support for violence is more predictable and trackable."
The research center's most recent survey found that "almost 14%—a minority of Americans, but still a significant number—believe the use of force is justified to 'achieve political goals that I support,'" the newspaper reported. "More specifically, 12.4% believe it's justified to restore the federal right to abortion, 8.4% believe it's justified to ensure members of Congress and other government officials do the right thing, 6.3% think it's justified to preserve the rights of white Americans, and 6.1% believe it's justified to prevent the prosecution of Trump."
Citing Duke University political science professor Peter Feaver, The Guardian noted that "while public support for political violence might seem extreme, a confluence of factors is necessary for actual violence to occur—which is still rare. On January 6, there was a time-sensitive action, an already existing rally, and inciters including Trump who encouraged others to commit violence."
According to Feaver, "You needed all of that at the same time to turn what would have been latent sentiment of the sort that this survey captures into actual violence."
On top of broad support for Trump's "Big Lie," the survey found that one in ten U.S. adults think "a secret group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is ruling the U.S. government," meaning QAnon had roughly the same percentage of adherents in April as it did in 2021. The survey also found that a quarter of U.S. adults agree that "the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World," revealing an alarming amount of ongoing support for the white nationalist "great replacement" theory.
More optimistically, the survey found that over 77% of U.S. adults want Republicans and Democrats in Congress to issue a joint statement condemning any political violence.
"There's a tremendous amount of opposition to political violence in the United States," Pape remarked, "but it is not mobilized."