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The Ugly Truth about Political Violence in America

Political violence is far too real and far too dangerous to treat as a partisan tool.

Image Credit: Image modified by FEE

Over the weekend, Washington Post opinion writer Jennifer Rubin appeared on CNBC to defend House Democrats who on Friday introduced a resolution to censure Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ).

Gosar recently shared on social media an anime video where he appeared to be shown attacking Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) with a sword and poised to attack President Joe Biden, and Rubin used the opportunity to highlight the troubling rise of violent rhetoric in US politics. (Gosar has since removed the video.) In doing so, Rubin—a former conservative who has written for PJ Media, Commentary, Human Events, and The Weekly Standard—pointed the finger squarely at Republicans, particularly Gosar, former President Donald Trump, and House Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).

“The Republican Party has for a while now been tacitly encouraging and rationalizing violence,” Rubin said. “This is fascistic behavior. This is what fascist regimes do…They intimidate and use the threat of violence. It’s absolutely intolerable.”

A Chilling Trend

Rubin is not wrong that there is a troubling rise of political violence in America. The summer of 2020 was the most violent since the 1960s, and it was followed by the Capitol riots on January 6.

Nor is Rubin wrong that Trump often refused to unequivocally condemn the use of violence as a legitimate political tool. For example, shortly before the 2020 election, during a debate with Joe Biden, Trump was given the opportunity to denounce the far-right Proud Boys by moderator Chris Wallace. Instead, Trump said the group should “stand back and stand by.” In 2016, Trump also said he’d consider paying the legal fees of a man charged after punching a protester at a Trump campaign rally.

Such rhetoric is not responsible, and it may help explain one of the most chilling developments of my lifetime: the percentage of Americans who see violence as a legitimate means of political change has exploded over the last five years, according to a survey conducted by Newsweek and Statista.

This is deeply troubling, but one thing quickly becomes clear after looking at the results of the survey: the embrace of violence is bipartisan.

‘All Punches Are Not Equal’

If you watch Ms. Rubin on CNBC, you’d have no indication of the reality that the rise of violence and violent rhetoric is bipartisan. The former right wing blogger, like a prosecutor at trial, argues passionately that violence is a problem spawned by Trump, Greene, and Gosar.

Like many partisans, Rubin simply chooses to ignore the summer of violence in 2020, which featured left wing groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter. Moreover, she ignores the fact that in many cases, those groups were egged on by politicians, media, and intellectuals.

Following the police killing of George Floyd, for example, Congresswoman Maxine Waters urged protesters to “stay on the street” and “get more confrontational” if a Minneapolis jury acquitted Derek Chauvin of Floyd’s death.

As Minneapolis burned, Kamala Harris urged followers to “chip in” and donate to a non-profit dedicated to bailing out people charged with crimes to get them back on the streets. Time and again Harris voiced support for those in the streets during violence, stating “we must always defend peaceful protests and peaceful protests; we must not confuse them.” But confusing them is precisely what Harris often did, and she was aided by a media that insisted police protests were “mostly peaceful” despite visual evidence to the contrary.

University professors, meanwhile, defended looting and talked about the utility of violence as a means of social progress.

“What we know in political science is protest matters,” one Oberlin College professor explained. “When we see destruction of buildings, when we see violence—either by police or protestors themselves—we actually see greater response by elected officials.”

Nor did such rhetoric begin in 2020. In the leadup to the 2018 elections, many Democrats used incendiary rhetoric against Trump’s policies (take your pick which one) to fire up the progressive base.

“I just don’t even know why there aren’t uprisings all over the country. And maybe there will be, when people realize that this is a policy that they defend,” the Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi lamented in 2018.

“Go to the Hill today,” US Senator Cory Booker said in July 2018. “Get up in the face of some Congress people.”

‘When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said during a campaign stop in McDonough, Georgia.

In the leadup to the November 2018 elections, many progressives—much like Trump—were coy when they fanned these flames in that they didn’t quite call for or defend violence. CNN commentator Chris Cuomo, however, didn’t see the need to mince words.

“I argue to you tonight all punches are not equal, morally,” Cuomo said on CNN in an August 2018 segment defending Antifa. “When someone comes to call out bigots and it gets hot, even physical, are they equally wrong as the bigot they’re fighting? I argue no.”

And just last week a Black Lives Matter leader promised “riots,” “fire” and “bloodshed” would follow if New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams brings back plainclothes officers to battle the city’s surge in crime.

‘A Huge Warning’

Ms. Rubin is right that there’s a violence problem in America, but she’s wrong to suggest it’s a problem that only plagues her political opponents.

Like Trump, Democrats and activists saw that the heated rhetoric of “uprisings” and getting “in the face” of political opponents was effective at charging up their base. And they’ve used such rhetoric in consecutive elections to fan anger and stoke racial grievances.

When an angry mob surrounded Sen. Rand Paul and his wife Kelly on the streets of Washington, DC in late August 2020 chanting “SAY HER NAME!”—a reference to the police shooting of Breonna Taylor—protesters could genuinely say they were only doing what political leaders had told them to do. It didn’t matter that Paul had sponsored the Justice for Breonna Taylor Act, legislation designed to ban police from using no-knock warrants.

Though she may not realize it, Rubin—who oddly called for new “rules” that would prohibit media from treating Republicans as “normal”—actually feeds into this culture of discord.

The conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, speaking on 60 Minutes on Sunday, pointed out that tribalism and political intolerance are destroying an important part of the American fabric.

“The American Constitution was set up for people who can reason and argue and aren’t afraid of it,” Sullivan explained to Scott Pelley. “If you’re in a tribe and all that matters is the victory of your tribe, and you have all the truth and the other tribe has none of it, and you have all the virtue and the other side has none of it, you can’t behave this way.”

The type of tribalism described by Sullivan is precisely that which Rubin routinely practices, and just one example of this is when she pretends that political violence is only a problem because of those weirdos on the right who shouldn’t even be allowed to speak on TV.

Political violence is far too real and far too dangerous to treat in such a cynical, partisan manner. As I wrote last year, Americans must categorically reject political violence or they will be consumed by it. Unfortunately, too many political leaders refuse to do just this.

On August 27, 2020, as Kenosha, Wisconsin was still reeling from riots that ended with the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings, candidate Kamala Harris gave a speech saying it was “no wonder people were taking to the streets” because of police brutality.

The mother of Jacob Blake—a 29-year-old black man shot seven times by police days earlier during a standoff outside his girlfriend’s car, which prompted the protests and riots—took a very different approach.

“If Jacob knew what was going on as far as that goes, the violence and destruction, he would be very unpleased,” Mrs. Jackson said. “Please don’t burn up property and cause havoc and tear your own homes down in my son’s name. You shouldn’t do it.”

Mrs. Blake shows how one unequivocally condemns violence. Many politicians (and many Americans) on both sides of the political aisle could learn from her example and the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace,” King said in Three Ways of Meeting Oppression. “It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.