It’s hard to talk about the threat of right-wing violence without sounding alarmist. After all, America has made it this far without succumbing to fascism—and the creaky institutional guardrails have held during national emergencies, including the Trump years. Even the January 6 insurrectionists didn’t have the look of a competent paramilitary force. It can’t happen here, right?
But it’s time to start getting alarmed—and for our institutions to respond accordingly.
Right-wing and white supremacist domestic terrorism is at highs not seen since the Jim Crow era. QAnon and Q-adjacent conspiracy theories have metastasized political disagreements and underlying racist and misogynist sentiments in the minds of millions of conservatives, some of whom now believe they are engaging in a battle with cannibal pedophile agents of Satan who steal every election. These wild and unfounded beliefs, in turn, provide them justification for almost any kind of violence in response.
Worse yet, a social media culture of violence and intimidation has stoked the right’s fetish for violence. Any prominent leftist or liberal (especially women and nonwhites) who says anything even mildly controversial is guaranteed to see legions of neofascist trolls inundating their replies with misogynistic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and other abusive slurs, and even threats of physical harm. Anyone who comes into the cross hairs of a major right-wing media or political figure—be it Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, or Dan Bongino—can expect days or weeks of explicit death threats by phone, email, text, and social media. I’m no stranger to it myself. This intimidation factor is precisely why they do it: Most normal people don’t want to put their families through the fear and abuse, so they silence or edit themselves accordingly.
It’s clear that at every level, from local police departments to the Department of Justice to the halls of Congress, the threat is not being taken seriously enough.
A recent Reuters investigation demonstrates how local police departments are not prepared to deal with the crisis. In several states, victims of phone death threats have reported the incidents to police, who declared the calls untraceable—but Reuters journalists were easily able to track down the culprits. In many cases, the threats seemed to clearly violate criminal statutes, but police used specious reasoning to minimize the threat:
Addressing state staffers and referring to the two journalists by name, he said he guaranteed that all would soon get “popped.”
“You guys are a bunch of f‑‑‑‑‑‑ clowns, and all you dirty c‑‑‑suckers are about to get f‑‑‑‑‑‑ popped,” he said. “I f‑‑‑‑‑‑ guarantee it.”
The officials referred the voicemail to state police, who again declined to investigate. Agency spokesperson Adam Silverman said in a statement that the message didn’t constitute an “unambiguous reference to gun violence,” adding that the word “popped”—common American slang for “shot”—“is unclear and nonspecific, and could be a reference to someone being arrested.”
Legal experts didn’t see it that way. Fred Schauer, a University of Virginia law professor, said the message likely constituted a criminal threat under federal law by threatening gun violence at specific individuals. “There’s certainly an intent to put people in fear,” Schauer said.
At the federal level, the Department of Justice ignored a bevy of red flags in failing to properly prepare for the January 6 Capitol attack. The actual violent perpetrators on the ground have so far gotten away with very light charges. It also isn’t clear whether the DOJ has the courage to investigate above the low-level participants in the attack to charge and arrest those who plotted and fomented the attempted coup. To be sure, they finally indicted the Trump strategist Steve Bannon in recent days. Only time will tell how much further DOJ officials will be willing to take the probe.
Meanwhile, in Congress, the explicitly white nationalist representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, recently tweeted a modified version of a scene from a popular anime show in which he is depicted as killing his colleague Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This sort of behavior should merit expulsion from the House of Representatives, as it would from any other workplace. It comes on the heels of another far-right Republican House member, Marjorie Taylor Greene, liking social media comments explicitly advocating for the murder of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Greene continues to serve.
It is understandable that local police departments don’t want to overreact to individuals venting hot air. It is understandable that the DOJ does not want to appear to be engaged in partisan prosecutions on behalf of the party currently in power. And it is understandable that the House does not want to escalate extremist behavior by expelling members and turning them into far-right media martyrs.
But history shows that underreacting to these threats is a far greater danger than overreacting to them. Low-level reactionary terrorism can easily destabilize democracies—in some cases, razing them to the ground. The most common precursor to a successful coup is a failed one. The failure to counter political extremism and threats of violence begets more extremism.
And yes, it can happen here. Wealthy democracies are not immune to the ravages of far-right extremists. In fact, they have exerted undue influence in recent years, as developments in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Brazil, and elsewhere suggest. Outside of the United States, presidential systems—as opposed to parliamentary systems—have been historically vulnerable because of the power of the executive branch to corrupt or overwhelm the judicial and legislative branches.
How has American survived so long without falling prey to racists who peddle systems of white supremacy? The answer, of course, is that it has not. America performed unspeakable genocidal horrors on Native Americans; it countenanced race-based slavery in its own Constitution; and it has engaged in systemic discrimination against minorities since its founding. Millions were killed in the American Civil War—a war that was waged over the institution of slavery, euphemistically coded as “states’ rights.” The growing power of Black businesses and Black voters was violently suppressed by a century-long campaign of vigilante and state-sanctioned terrorism and murder.
Today, there is one party explicitly devoted to an equity-based multiracial and inclusive democracy. The other tilts increasingly against such a vision in fear of changing demographics and cultural mores. It is not at all inconceivable that the violent defenders of status quo social inequities would seek to implement a violent, explicitly totalitarian regime to achieve their aims.
Their probability of success depends entirely on the willingness of our institutions to confront the problem.