In the past few days, Democratic and even Republican political leaders have responded to the growing risks of political violence following the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home by urging calm. This is a valuable step, given the recent joint warning by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security about growing threats against law enforcement, courts, and public officials. But how can our leaders truly put America on a trajectory to prevent violent threats to our democracy before they happen, especially heading into a wildfire political season with the upcoming midterm elections?
There are crucial pathways to diminish the risks of political violence in America, pathways that build on the early steps some political leaders are taking and that could make a crucial difference. To understand why they are important, however, we need to know how we got to this point, why the risks of political violence are now growing, and why truly bipartisan political steps are far more important now than ever.
There is now substantial credible evidence that significant segments of the general public — not just a tiny fringe — support violence to achieve political goals. Indeed, understanding that support for political violence has moved from the fringe to a significant minority in the mainstream helps to make sense of the otherwise surprising volatility of our politics.
Over the past year and a half, I have led a research team at the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats that has conducted nearly a half dozen surveys of violent sentiments in the US population, fielded by NORC at the University of Chicago and using the highest standards of survey research, a random sample of a 40,000-person, nationally representative panel matched to the US population on dozens and dozens of demographic, political, economic, and social factors.
Our surveys have consistently found that between 15 million and 20 million American adults agree that the “use of force is justified” to restore Trump to the presidency and that well over 50 million agree that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election and is an illegitimate president. We also conducted focus groups and asked what those surveyed thought the “use of force” meant and the overwhelming answer was violence on the order of Jan. 6.
Overall, our April survey found that an estimated 18 million adults agree both that force is justified for Trump and that Biden is an illegitimate president. These 18 million with pro-Trump insurrectionist sympathies have dangerous capabilities and training (8 million own guns, 2 million have prior US military service) and near-term organizational growth potential (1 million are a militia member or know one, 6 million support anti-government militias like the Oath Keepers and extremist groups like the Proud Boys).
The central finding from our surveys is that the risk of pro-Trump political violence is not limited to existing violent groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and similar groups for which violence is a core part of their ideology — militant groups that comprise a fringe of 1 percent or less of the US population, according to our surveys. Instead, the risk of political violence is connected to a significant minority — nearly 10 times larger than the militant group fringe — within the mainstream of American society that is not fading away.
Understanding this strategic landscape of mainstream support for pro-Trump political violence helps to clarify risks and identify — in advance — potential flashpoints that could lead Trump to incite future violence. Indeed, knowing the strategic picture, we can readily see that tactical flashpoints reveal themselves. With a mainstream pro-Trump insurrectionist movement in the country, it is predictable that just a social media message by Trump could incite violence as well as claims of stolen elections (from his preferred candidates).
The image of “wildfires” is apt. The tens of millions of Americans with violent sentiments are like a combustible pile of dry brush in a wildfire season just waiting for a spark to set the pile aflame. We need an approach to reduce the combustible material, one that applies across the political spectrum.
Indeed, this dynamic — flashpoint to Trump social media post to incitement to violence — not only appears to have happened in the case of the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, but again last week.
The FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago served as the flashpoint. Trump himself brought the news of the raid to national attention with his social media post on Truth Social at 7 p.m. on Aug. 8. Immediately, posts reacting to Trump’s post exploded — not only on Truth Social but across mainstream social media. On Twitter, tweets mentioning “civil war” surged from about 500 an hour from Aug. 3 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 8 to 15,000 per hour at 10 p.m. that day.
The next step was violence. On Aug. 11, a pro-Trump activist who posted threats to “kill” the FBI attacked the FBI building in Cincinnati Ohio, wearing body armor and carrying an AR-15 style rifle. He was later killed by law enforcement when he raised his gun after an hours-long standoff.
As law enforcement and scholars of political violence know, there are psycho-social factors that lead individuals to mobilize to violence. However, volatile individuals who live in communities where there is widespread support for violence are more likely to take violent action. Indeed, there is little doubt that this dynamic occurred in the case of the Cincinnati attacker, since, only minutes after trying to shoot his way into the FBI building, he posted an almost boastful confession on Truth Social for millions of pro-Trump supporters to see.
Put simply: The danger of significant political violence related to pro-Trump activists has not disappeared since the assault on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and is not limited to scenarios of replays of stolen election violence.
To be sure, pro-Trump political violence is not the only risk facing our country. Our survey also found evidence of liberal support for political violence for liberal grievances. In our April survey, about 10 million Democrats agree that the “use of force is justified to change” US laws and institutions that are “fundamentally unjust” and about 10 million Democrats also agree that “force is justified against the police.” Not surprisingly, Republicans agree far less with these violent sentiments.
These facts — that about 20 million pro-Trump activists support political violence and about 10 million Democrats support political violence for liberal grievances — clarify the threat landscape that we must contend with in the coming months and years. These facts also point toward a constructive approach to prevent more political violence.
Most important, there needs to be a grand compromise and plan of action by Republican and Democratic political leaders — acting jointly — that would put our country on the path toward preventing political violence.
The plan is simple and something many political leaders already know in their hearts and minds. The plan is for Republican and Democratic leaders to join together in bipartisan calls to denounce political violence; reject the political and financial support for their party of any activist calling for civil war and harm against public officials, law enforcement, or the judiciary; and condemn any elected official of their own party who calls for any form of violence.
Imagine if over the next few weeks, 20 senators (10 Republican, 10 Democrat), 20 House members (10 Republican, 10 Democrat), 20 governors (10 Republican, 10 Democrat), 20 mayors of America’s 100 largest cities (10 Republican, 10 Democrat), and two past presidents (one Republican, one Democrat), all issued joint statements denouncing political violence, rejecting support by violent activists, and condemning their own party officials who advocate “killing,” “hunting,” or “war” for political causes.
Imagine if even just one of these bipartisan statements was issued.
Then, even in the midst of a highly contentious election season, America would take the first meaningful step in years to reduce the threat to our democracy.
Are there not 20 political leaders and two former presidents who can come together across the political aisle to save America’s precious democracy?
Robert A. Pape is professor of political science and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago.