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The Republican Party’s culture of violence

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The MAGA movement has been infused with violence and threats of violence for years. Those threats—now aimed at Republican lawmakers—are the new normal in the GOP.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

Sleeping With a Gun by the Bed

The trash fire that is the Republican competition to elect the speaker of the House is entering a new phase now that Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio is out of the running. Nine men have put themselves forward; Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota is the apparent favorite, at least for now. Of the nine, seven voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election. (Emmer and Representative Austin Scott of Georgia voted to certify the results.)

Before this contest moves into horse-race handicapping, we should revisit the astonishing stories from over the weekend about the threats made against Republican legislators during Jordan’s brief candidacy. CNN’s Jake Tapper, MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, and Aaron Blake at The Washington Post, among others, reported on these threats, but many Americans seem unable to muster more than a shrug and a kind of resigned acceptance that this is just how some Republicans are now. The only people who seem angry about this are the Republican lawmakers who, along with their families, received these threats.

Although Jordan repudiated these tactics, some of his colleagues blame him anyway, and Americans are now, as Blake wrote last week, in a “long-overdue” conversation about the role of threats in public life, one that “should include a recognition that these threats and intimidation can work, and probably have.”

That “conversation,” unfortunately, is unlikely to continue. Republicans have long feared their own voters, and have for years whispered about it among themselves. Now that Jordan has been defeated, they will likely go back to pretending that such threats are isolated incidents. But the threats during Jordan’s candidacy should confirm that Trump’s MAGA loyalists, firmly nested in the GOP, constitute a violent movement that refuses to lose any democratic contest—even to other members of its own party.

Some of these threats can be dismissed as the result of technology: The frictional costs of threatening people are basically nonexistent. Angry cranks once needed time and materials (envelopes and stamps, or at least a call to an information line) to say awful things. Today, people are surfing the internet with a smartphone—their personal secretary and valet—right by their side, so the interval between having a repulsive thought and expressing it to a target is now functionally zero.

But email and the internet, and political violence in the United States, have been around for a while. Only in the age of Trump have threats become a common part of daily American partisan politics. Almost anyone who is even remotely a public figure now gets them over almost anything, and Trump and his movement have gone quite far in killing any sense of shame for saying terrible things to other people or their families over political differences.

Not only does Trump expressly model this kind of behavior; he and his media enablers provide rationalizations for such threats. Ironically, many of these excuses were once associated with the violent far left a half-century ago: The system is rigged; democracy is a mug’s game; anyone who disagrees with you is an enemy; those in power will never give it up without being subjected to violence and intimidation. But much of it is also out of the far-right, fascist playbook: The elites are plotting against you; anyone who disagrees with you is obviously in on the plot; the only salvation is if We the People engage in violence ordained by God himself.

We’ve seen these illiberal, populist attitudes and beliefs before. What we have not seen in America until now is the capture of a major political party by this kind of paranoia and violence.

The threats around Jordan’s attempt to gain the gavel are also different because the people making them are reaching down into granular, inside-baseball GOP politics. In recent years, some MAGA adherents have made threats against their partisan opponents in order to defend Trump’s honor, or because they were convinced that the 2020 election was stolen. Now, however, the movement is turning on its own. Some people follow internal House conferences as if they are members of the caucus, and treat the election of a speaker—which is important, to be sure—as an existential battle.

Amazingly, these people made threats in support of … Jim Jordan. They are actually menacing other human beings over the ambitions of a loudmouthed, ineffectual member of Congress.

After threats over the speakership, what’s next? Death threats over who becomes deputy whip? Put the honorable Mr. Bloggs on the Rules Committee, or I’ll hurt your family? As the writer Eric Hoffer so presciently noted more than 70 years ago, decadence and boredom can be among the most useful raw materials for the construction of an authoritarian movement, and clearly, American society has plenty of both.

Many Republican legislators are scared, and they should be. Only 25 members of the House GOP conference voted against Jordan on the floor during the last round of voting. Many more opposed making him speaker; in a secret ballot, 112 of Jordan’s colleagues voted against him—which suggests that more than 80 of them feared doing so in public.

It’s not uncommon for members of Congress to vote one way among themselves and then cast a different vote on the floor, especially if the issue is one where the national party is at odds with the voters in a member’s district. Such political calculations, though sometimes distasteful, are common. But democracy cannot function if legislators feel that their lives—and those of their families—are in danger from their fellow citizens. No matter what happens with Trump and the MAGA cult, the Republican Party cannot go on this way, and some of the legislators who spoke up about threats during Jordan’s attempt to become speaker seem to know it.

What they are willing to do about it is less clear. But I wonder if the arrests and convictions for the January 6 insurrection are having their effect: One caller to a representative, after a string of f-bombs and barely veiled threats, made an effort to stipulate that he was speaking only of nonviolent harassment. Perhaps holding such people legally accountable for their actions—whether they intended violence or were just trying to throw a scare into others—might begin to reverse this trend.

Republican elected officials didn’t seem to care very much about such rhetoric when it was aimed at their opponents, and they were only briefly shaken on January 6, 2021, when a violent mob made clear that there was plenty of room reserved on the gibbet for Mike Pence and other Republican leaders. Perhaps they’ll take such threats more seriously now that their internal squabbles could lead to their wives having to sleep with a gun by the bed, but I suspect that the hyper-partisanship and stunning cowardice that brought the GOP to this moment will, as ever, win the day.


Today’s News

  1. Two more hostages were released by Hamas. The International Committee of the Red Cross said that it facilitated their release.
  2. The Philippines accused the Chinese coast guard of “intentionally” hitting its boats in a disputed area of the South China Sea.
  3. María Corina Machado won the Venezuelan opposition’s first presidential primary in more than a decade. If allowed to run, she will challenge President Nicolás Maduro in what he has promised will be an internationally monitored election next year.


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A while back, I said that I would occasionally use this space to revisit some 1980s musical oddities. This week, I want to remind you how very political music videos could be in the Decade of Excess. You’ve probably seen the video for the 1986 Genesis hit “Land of Confusion,” which used Britain’s Spitting Image puppets to portray world leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to trippy effect. Reagan made a lot of appearances in words and images in those days, including in Sting’s “Russians,” Men at Work’s “It’s a Mistake,” and others.

But for my money, the best video with a Reagan reference was made by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Better known for its huge dance hit “Relax,” in 1984, the band recorded “Two Tribes,” a song about nuclear war. (I wrote about MTV’s nuclear genre here.) The video features two actors, one obviously Reagan, and the other—and this is the cool trivia part—meant to be the Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko. The two of them beat each other up until the world explodes. The end.

But wait—who? Exactly. Chernenko was leader of the U.S.S.R. for all of 13 months, mostly as a seat warmer in ill health. History has forgotten him, but thanks to a video filmed at the right moment in time, he will live on, forever headbutting Reagan and biting the American president’s ear in an eternal arena match.

— Tom

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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