In March 2020, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives posted a video message addressed to two Democratic political candidates that issued a threatening challenge if they passed laws he did not like. Standing in his Capitol Hill office, Ken Buck of Colorado’s Fourth District gestured toward a rifle mounted on the wall.
“I have a message for Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke. If you want to take everyone’s AR-15 in America, why don’t you swing by my office in Washington, D.C., and start with this one.” At this point, Buck reached for a stars-and-stripes-decorated rifle mounted on the wall. He brandished the weapon, smiled what he must have imagined was a tough-guy smile, and said, “Come and take it.”
At the time the video was released, Biden was the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Normally, the Secret Service takes an interest in threats of violence against potential presidents. I could find no indication that it did so in this case. It probably understood—as most of us would understand—that Buck would never make good on his threat to assassinate political opponents if they enacted gun-control legislation. He was only performing a threat, in a way that has become dully familiar in American politics.
Missouri Governor Eric Greitens resigned in disgrace in 2018 after facing allegations that he had used explicit photographs to blackmail a former lover. He tried to revive his career with a Senate run in 2020. Guns became a major theme of that campaign, culminating in a video ad that pictured him carrying a gun as he broke open the door of a house. Accompanied by two armed goons, he urged: “Get a RINO-hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”
Facebook removed the ad. Greitens said his threat against “Republicans in Name Only” was intended humorously.
And it’s not only marginal Republican backbenchers and embittered ex-officeholders who threaten violence.
In his campaign to become Georgia’s governor in 2018, Brian Kemp released an ad in which he pointed a hunting rifle at a seemingly frightened young man who wanted to date Kemp’s daughter.
Dan Crenshaw—one of the most intelligent Republicans in the House, someone who ought to be a next-generation party leader—in January released a deliberately absurd ad that cast him as a movie superhero. All in good fun, until the final scene that showed him apparently smashing a car windshield to reach and destroy two lurking political adversaries.
I could list many similar examples over dozens more paragraphs. But here’s the point: There’s nothing partisan about political violence in America. It has struck Republicans such as Steve Scalise, who was shot along with four others and nearly killed, as he played baseball in suburban Virginia. The gunman was a Bernie Sanders supporter who had traveled from Illinois with a legally purchased weapon and a target list of Republican members of Congress. It has threatened conservatives such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, stalked by a would-be assassin angry about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And it has struck citizens of very different persuasions as they took part in street protests—as when Kyle Rittenhouse, acting as an armed vigilante, gunned down two demonstrators in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020, and when Michael Forest Reinoehl, a self-described anti-fascist, hunted and killed a political enemy in Seattle in September.
But if both Republicans and Democrats, left and right, suffer political violence, the same cannot be said of those who celebrate political violence. That’s not a “both sides” affair in 2020s America.
You don’t see Democratic House members wielding weapons in videos and threatening to shoot candidates who want to cut capital-gains taxes or slow the growth of Medicare. Democratic candidates for Senate do not post video fantasies of hunting and executing political rivals, or of using a firearm to discipline their children’s romantic partners. It’s not because of Democratic members that Speaker Nancy Pelosi installed metal detectors to bar firearms from the floor of the House. No Democratic equivalent exists of Donald Trump, who regularly praises and encourages violence as a normal tool of politics, most recently against his own party’s Senate leader, Mitch McConnell. As the formerly Trump-leaning Wall Street Journal editorialized on October 2: “It’s all too easy to imagine some fanatic taking Mr. Trump seriously and literally, and attempting to kill Mr. McConnell. Many supporters took Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about former Vice President Mike Pence all too seriously on Jan. 6.”
The January 6 insurrection is the overhanging fact above all this rhetoric of political violence. That was the day when Trump’s ally Rudy Giuliani urged, “Let’s have trial by combat”—and thousands heeded and complied. That terrible day, incited by President Trump and organized by Trump supporters, should have chastened American politics for a generation. It did not. Armed and masked vigilantes are intimidating voters right now in Arizona and other states, inspired by Trump’s continued election lies, as amplified by his supporters to this very day.
Paul Pelosi is the latest to pay a blood price for the cult of violence. Thankfully, he is expected to make a full recovery, but he won’t be the last victim of the cult. It won’t stop, but it must stop. As Abraham Lincoln wrote to a friend in 1863: “Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and … they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost.”