The 'cancer of political violence' has infected the GOP — but it can still be cured
Rioters clash with police trying to enter Capitol building through the front doors. (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

Yesterday, I told you about the real fault line within the GOP and how the Democrats are hammering it to its breaking point by speaking the truth. While the GOP's radicals don't mind you knowing about its informal network of paramilitaries waiting to spring into action, its leaders and old guard would rather you didn't know. Right-wing violence exposes covert efforts to make authoritarianism nice and legal.

Don't lose hope, I said. The GOP's authoritarian takeover depends on its ability to balance both camps and their irreconcilable desires. One wants open violence while the other condemns it knowing the party's attempts to nullify democracy by way of state laws rigging elections would be exposed for what they are. Meanwhile, the Democrats are knocking the GOP off-balance by speaking truthfully. Recently House Democratic Majority Whip Jim Clyburn told Roll Call: "Call it what it is. Use the word: nullification. It is voter nullification" (my stress).

Today, I want to bring Hussein Ibish into the conversation. He's a scholar at Washington's Arab Gulf States Institute. He writes for a bevy of publications, including Bloomberg and the Times. For The Atlantic, he wrote about the link between violent rhetoric and real violence. The difference between them, Ibish said, is merely a matter of time.

"Decades of living in, studying, and writing about the Middle East have taught me that whenever a political faction becomes obsessed with violent rhetoric and fantasies, brutal acts aren't far behind."

The cancer of political violence is not an endemic American disease. At the moment, it is a Republican disease. No one but Republicans themselves can cure it. Until they do, the violence of the right is only going to keep swelling and crashing. From a Middle Eastern perspective, this is all appallingly familiar.

I think Ibish is correct in saying that "while there's always been a strain of militancy on the American right and left fringes, there is something unmistakably new, and profoundly alarming, about the casual, florid, and sadistic rhetoric that is metastasizing from the Republican fringe into the party's mainstream." He cites a spectrum of evidence, including a particularly gruesome article in The Federalist. But I think it's important to bear in mind that past rhetoric by fringe Republicans didn't feature militancy divorced from violent rhetoric. In every sense that matters politically, militancy and violent rhetoric were the same.

Environmental historian James Skillen identified the early 1990s as the start of a "more militant rhetoric [that] included the new, decidedly insurrectionist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, namely that the founders had written the amendment precisely so that individual citizens would have guns to use against government tyrants.

And while [Newt] Gingrich, Dick Armey (R-TX), and other leaders didn't claim the time for insurrection had come, they expanded the Republican coalition to include militias, whose members were literally preparing for war with the federal government. The militias remained at the party's margins only because mainstream Republicans did not yet share their dark conspiracy theories, including the belief that communists had taken control of the federal government or that the military was preparing internment camps for American citizens.

When we put the history of the Republican Party's rhetoric of violence in perspective like this, it should be clear it started small, increased steadily and was punctuated by the white backlash against the first Black president and by the siege on the United States Capitol by a disgraced former president's armed paramilitaries. It seems to me that the space between violent rhetoric and violent acts can be best understood as like a mycelium that's been growing and spreading underfoot, occasionally mushrooming in the form of mass death.

What mass death? Here's where I really part ways with Hussein Ibish. He suggests violence is coming–that it will be an outcome of violent rhetoric of the gory kind illustrated by that Federalist article. But I think we have seen the violence. No, I'm not talking about the January 6 insurrection. I'm talking about pogroms no one has identified as pogroms. We have instead identified them as senseless or incoherent or insane, the bloody product of mental illness and irrational gun laws. But I have come to think of the shooting massacres the country has witnessed over a decade and a half–Sandy Hook, Charleston, Parkland and El Paso–as outcomes of a long campaign of violent rhetoric begun in the early 1990s when fringe Republicans embraced a "decidedly insurrectionist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment." The GOP's allies, inside and outside the party, have increasingly understood that the problems of democracy can and ought to be solved with a gun.

If I'm correct, this is the proper context by which to understand the Republicans' response to a once-a-century plague that will kill, before it's all over, a million Americans. Instead of a major nation-threatening crisis, it was a political opportunity. The Donald Trump administration knew at the start of the covid pandemic that it was spreading rapidly in major metro areas that were run by Democrats. Knowing this, the administration slowed its response in the belief that the enemy (the covid) of its enemy (the Democrats) was its friend. The point of violence is elimination. The coronavirus was doing all the work. Even now, the Republicans are sabotaging recovery from the pandemic in the hope that Americans will blame the current administration.

I disagree with Hussein Ibish in another significant way. "At the moment, it is a Republican disease. No one but Republicans themselves can cure it," he said. Democracy can cure it regardless of the GOP. But that requires greater awareness, helped along by the Democrats, of the Republicans' history of palling around with domestic terrorists going back to the early 1990s. That requires greater awareness of shooting massacres as political violence, as pogroms, intent on "cleansing America." That requires greater awareness of the covid pandemic being weaponized by the Republican Party to achieve its political goals. Violence comes in all shapes and sizes. But we have to call it what it is. Breaking the GOP's fault line demands we all speak the truth.