Part of the horror of mass shootings such as the one that occurred in Lewiston, Maine, on Wednesday is their unpredictability. What can’t be predicted can’t be stopped or prevented, which is one of the reasons why we so easily fall into despair at their occurrence: “If only someone had seen the warning signs.” We can’t divine what’s in the shooter’s head or what specific set of circumstances will set him off (it’s almost always a “he”) to commit violence. We may look for reasons or motives after the fact, but we’re almost never provided the critical information to make those judgments beforehand.
Some acts of violence are predictable, however. It’s a sad testament that this nation has allowed a substantial subset of its population to become inured to the idea of violence as a way of resolving differences. But it’s far worse when one of our political parties actually relies on stoking violent impulses in its adherents as a deliberate, intentional strategy. That is not normal, and it’s dangerous.
Several recent surveys (conducted by the same institute) of public opinion in this country indicate that support for political violence has dramatically increased over the past three years, most significantly and substantially among those Republicans who support Donald Trump. These sentiments happen to be dovetailing with the increasing possibility that Trump will be judged criminally liable in some fashion within the next 12 months. Assuming Trump’s embrace of violent and incendiary rhetoric increases commensurately with his general pattern when his personal interests are threatened, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is a strong likelihood of violent incidents in connection with, approaching, or in the aftermath of the 2024 election.
Several news outlets have reported this week on the findings of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research group that has conducted eight surveys since 2021 examining Americans’ attitudes about the state of our country including, among other things, Americans’ tolerance for violence as a means of resolving their political differences. These multifaceted surveys, conducted in partnership with the Brookings Institute, examine several topical issues that tend to define partisan differences in this country, including ”abortion, gender and LGBTQ issues, immigration, foreign policy, Christian nationalism, and support for QAnon,” among others. The PRRI survey, sampling 2,525 adults resident to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, also gauges American attitudes toward authoritarianism and assesses attitudes toward individual presidential candidates, including, of course, President Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
However, as Ashley Lopez reports for NPR, it is the striking increase in approval and acceptance of political violence that has rendered the most recent survey results particularly alarming. While 84% of Democrats and supermajorities of both Republicans and independents believe that “the future of American democracy is at risk in the 2024 presidential election,” the correlation of voters’ political preferences to their appetite for political violence is unusually stark in this year’s survey. As Lopez observes while interviewing the CEO of PRRI, “Nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) agree that ‘because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,’ according to the survey.’’ That’s the highest percentage ever recorded by PRRI.
As Lopez reports, most of those who believe that are Republicans:
Currently one-third of Republicans support violence as a means to save the country, compared with 22% of independents and 13% of Democrats, the survey found. More specifically, Republicans who have favorable views of Donald Trump were found to be “nearly three times as likely as Republicans who have unfavorable views of Trump” to support political violence.
Axios posted the PRRI’s graph of that survey question on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter):
According to the survey, 7 out of 10 Republicans view Trump either favorably or very favorably, so that last sentence seems to be a rather anodyne statement about the actual number of Trump’s base supporters and their appetite for political violence. David Smith, writing for The Guardian, highlights the character of that hardcore voter base rather more meaningfully than NPR:
Support for political violence jumps to even higher levels among Americans who believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump (46%); Americans who hold a favourable view of Trump (41%); Americans who believe in the so-called “replacement theory” (41%); Americans who affirm the core tenet of white Christian nationalism, that God intended America to be a new promised land for European Christians (39%).
What that tells us is that roughly half of the really “enthusiastic” Trump voters approve of violence to achieve whatever it is they believe in.
The PRRI survey also confirms that the conspiratorial fantasies of QAnon are a growing, largely Republican phenomenon. As Smith observes:
PRRI has also been tracking the QAnon conspiracy movement since 2021. Across party lines there has been a significant increase in QAnon believers (from 14% to 23%) and a decrease in QAnon rejecters (from 40% to 29%). Republicans remain twice as likely as Democrats to be QAnon believers (29% v 14%) and are three times less likely to be QAnon rejecters (14% v 43%).
The influence of Fox News in ramping up the anger of Republicans is obvious in the PRRI’s survey results. For example, on immigration issues:
A slim majority (52%) of Americans oppose installing deterrents such as walls, floating barriers in rivers, and razor wire to prevent immigrants from entering the country illegally, even if they endanger or kill some people, compared with 44% who support this tactic. Nearly eight in ten Republicans (77%), compared with 44% of independents and just 15% of Democrats, favor this policy.
Nearly all far-right news viewers (96%) as well as nearly eight in ten Fox News viewers (77%) support this policy, compared with about half of those who do not watch TV news (47%) and 29% of those who watch mainstream news.
The survey also indicates that a “vast majority of far-right news (87%) and Fox News viewers (67%) agree” that immigrants are “invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background,” a restatement of the “Great Replacement” theory that was once common only to fringe white supremacist groups but has since been mainstreamed by Fox News and its “personalities,” such as Tucker Carlson.
The PRRI survey also suggests that Americans can be taught to condone violence depending on how the information about that violence is presented to them. The same “Fox effect” is apparent in Americans’ views on police brutality toward Black people. From the survey:
Around eight in ten Republicans (81%), half of independents (50%), and 18% of Democrats believe that killings of Black Americans by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a broader pattern of how police treat Black Americans.
The vast majority of Americans who most trust far-right media outlets (91%) and Fox News (81%) for television news say that the killing of Black Americans by police are isolated incidents, compared with half of those who don’t watch TV news (50%) and 35% of those who watch mainstream news.
Of course, few people who advocate or support violence in response to a survey are likely to actually commit violence, for reasons of self-interest if nothing else. But as we saw in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, susceptibility to group violence can hang on a single catalyzing event that draws on peoples’ (mostly imaginary) collective grievances, such as not getting their way in an election because of “fraud” perpetrated by the other side. It’s also important to recall that Trump’s fulsome embrace of election denialism did not fully metastasize until well after the 2020 election. It has now become an article of faith among his base supporters that the election was stolen or otherwise fraudulent. This is now a different country, not the same place it was in 2020.
It’s reasonably clear from the survey that the toxic combination of Trump, Fox News, and other right-wing media is the root cause of Republicans’ increased appetite for (and approval of) political violence. It’s also clear that this is a deliberate strategy, embraced and adopted by elected Republicans to keep their hold on power.
As Mark Danner, writing for the New York Review of Books, observes:
Trump is the grand artist of grievance. He has replaced the Republican nostrums of balanced budgets and tax cuts and military strength with paranoia and bitterness and white-hot anger. A party that once wanted little more than to cut rich people’s taxes now wildly cheers gutting the FBI and the Department of Justice. This is Trump’s Republican Party, brimming with working- and middle-class supporters only he could attract. Trump built this new party and he is determined to use it, energized with the ignominy of his prosecutions, to vault himself back into the White House. Regaining power is his only strategy, his only plan; and his very freedom, perhaps his life, depend on it.
Few Republicans will say they actually “want” violence. Whether that’s true or not, however, is a moot point. Also moot is the fact that nearly the totality of Republicans’ increasing embrace of violence is premised on mostly delusional grievances, carefully and intentionally stoked by Trump and Fox News, among others. We probably won’t know what was going through the head of the Maine shooter. But that didn’t matter to his victims.
PRRI’s president, Robert Jones, was interviewed for Smith’s article in The Guardian:
“Our last presidential election was the first in our history without a peaceful transfer of power. With flashes of political violence continuing among us, and the 2024 election on the horizon, we should be deeply concerned about the growing number of Americans who express openness to political violence.”
In a country virtually drowning in guns, with the leader of one of its political parties regularly encouraging violence and a right-wing media apparatus that constantly stokes and legitimizes violence as a solution to a litany of invented grievances, it would be delusional not to be “deeply concerned.”