Threats of political violence rise in polarized Trump era


Escalating tensions this summer have stepped up fears about political violence. 

Law enforcement officials, college campuses and cities around the country are bracing for a new wave of alt-right rallies in the weeks and months to come, with parties on both sides of the debate over Confederate statues and monuments prepared for standoffs.

At the center of it all is President Trump, whose heated rhetoric has angered opponents while firing up his supporters, magnifying the sense that the political divide in the country is growing wider. 

{mosads}“When there seems to be no room for compromise and no appetite for listening to the other side, the potential for violence is higher,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “And the Confederate monuments are the obvious flashpoint.” 

Even before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., this month, which left one woman dead and 19 others injured after a car mowed down a group of counterprotesters, there was already heightened concern over the threat of violence amid a hyper-charged political environment in the country.

A lone gunman shot up a baseball field earlier this summer where Republican members and staffers were practicing for a charity game, leaving House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) in critical condition. 

And the first half of this year saw an alarming uptick in death threats against lawmakers, with Capitol Police investigating more threats in the first half of 2017 than all of last year. Many lawmakers have refused to hold town halls this year, claiming they feel it is too dangerous.

The increasing threats come after one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history. Tempers on both sides ran high during the 2016 cycle, with punches being thrown at some campaign events.

{mosads}But even after taking office, Trump has generally stuck to the same street-fighting style that energized his base and helped propel him to victory.

“He himself is kind of more inflammatory, and he tends to react to things in this more aggressive manner. That can be good for a campaign and welcome in a primary, but it’s complicated for trying to build unity,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“The more the president foams up this dissent, the worse it is to try to unify the country as a nation and to heal these wounds.”

The discord was on full display at a raucous rally in Arizona this week, where Trump attacked lawmakers in his own party, blamed the media for the negative coverage of his equivocating response to Charlottesville and warned his supporters that their culture is at risk of being taken away.

Outside of the rally, police officers used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters.

While Trump has repeatedly called for unity, his actions appear to be having the opposite effect, according to political observers. 

There is growing concern that Trump could be bringing long-simmering tensions to a boil, with his supporters feeling more inclined to go out and defend the president and his critics feeling more pressure to have their own voices heard.

“There’s always been tension over race and ethnicity and immigration, that’s a part of American history. But if you have the president attacking different groups, there is a real danger that people will take him up on his rhetoric,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian and presidential expert at Princeton University.

“People who are angry will want to attack the people he is attacking, and that is not a safe situation. He might be unleashing things he can’t control.” 

Whether Charlottesville was an isolated incident or part of a broader trend will be put to the test in the coming months. 

A number of cities, colleges and local law enforcement agencies are gearing up for more right-wing rallies around the country, which are expected to bring both demonstrators and counterprotesters. 

Stormfront, a leading internet forum for white supremacists, is planning a “White Pride Worldwide” summit in eastern Tennessee during the last weekend of September.

While police departments say they are prepared to handle the events, there is growing fear that the gatherings could spiral into violent clashes. 

Other right-wing events have already been halted over the threat of violence. Texas A&M cancelled a “White Lives Matter” rally scheduled for Sept. 11, while the University of Florida denied a request from a white nationalist group to hold an event there.

And, after repeated clashes between left- and right-wing groups during the first half of the year over controversial conservative speakers, University of California, Berkeley unveiled a new policy after Charlottesville requiring eight weeks’ advance notice for speakers so that the university can make security preparations. 

“What we’re seeing is the consequence of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and his attacks on so-called political correctness,” Cohen said. “Mr. Trump’s comments after Charlottesville … energized the white supremacist movement and gave people a license to act on their worst instincts.” 

Others, however, say the rise of social media and cable news networks are partly to blame for inflaming the tensions in the country, pointing to wall-to-wall coverage of the violence in Charlottesville.

“Cable TV needs content, so they replay over and over a statue coming down, someone being punched in the face,” said Craig Shirley, a historian and biographer of former President Reagan. “I think that just adds to everybody’s anxiety.”


Parallels with other points in history

Historians point out that it’s not uncommon to see political frustrations boil over in response to a new presidency or policy. 

In 2009, mounting anger over pending ObamaCare legislation inspired hostile town halls around the country, including some that led to fistfights. 

There was also a massive divide in the country when President George W. Bush took office following a controversial recount of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. 

But many historians believe that the best comparison is to President Richard Nixon coming to power after pledging to impose “law and order,” following civil rights victories during the Johnson administration.

Similarly, they believe the current environment may be a backlash to the changing demographics and social change that the country has seen in recent years.

“There’s a cyclical role of how politics, and reactions to policy, take place,” said Rottinghaus. “Nixon’s presidency is a reaction to LBJ, just like Trump’s candidacy is a reaction to what Obama did in office.” 

While historians are not predicting wide-scale riots like the ones that took place in the 1960s, they do caution that there could be more violent clashes if Trump doesn’t tamp down on the growing unrest and try to bridge the partisan divide.

“Trump didn’t create white anxiety, he didn’t create the backlash to having an African-American president. But he harnessed it and revved it up,” Cohen said.  “He is blowing up the balloon, and it’s going to pop, and it’s going to be ugly.”

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