America’s tradition of a peaceful transition of power relies upon the foundation that partisans view themselves as political opponents, not as mortal enemies.
The tradition of a peaceful transition of power has been disrupted only twice in our history: with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, leading to the South seceding and Civil War; and with the election of Joseph Biden, leading to a seditious insurrection by the personality cult of a demagogue, Donald Trump.
A poll taken shortly after the MAGA/QAnon violent seditious insurrection in our nations Capitol on January 6, 2021 reveaed that Most Republicans see Democrats not as political opponents but as enemies:
The idea is a simple one: A country in which people with at-times differing views of how things should be run get together and vote on representatives who will enact policy. The candidates with the most support take office, working to build consensus for the policies their constituents want to see. Both before and after the election, there’s an expectation that disagreements will be resolvable and resolved.
This is an idealized version of our system, of course, but that’s how ideals work. Central to American politics is the idea that even if your candidate loses, the winner will advocate for you.
Let’s call this the “School House Rock” version. Reality is far different from this “School House Rock” version.
For example, we have new polling from CBS News, conducted by YouGov, which explores how members of each political party tend to think of members of the opposing party.
Most Democrats say that they tend to view Republicans as political opponents. Most Republicans say that they tend to view Democrats as enemies.
The gap between the two parties on this question is stark. There’s a 32-point difference on net between how Democrats view Republicans and vice versa, on a question positing that members of a political party might be viewed with overt hostility. It’s grim — and it is consistent with increasingly hostile partisan views over time.
Pew Research Center, for example, has tracked partisan sentiment for years. One way it does so is presenting people with a thermometer scale in which they are asked to evaluate their feelings using temperature. Dislike someone? They get a zero. Love them? 100.
From December 2016 to September 2019, the percentage of both Democrats and Republicans viewing members of the other party coldly (to extend the analogy) increased significantly — as did the percentage of partisans offering a very cold measure of the opposition. More than half of both Republicans and Democrats held very cold views of the other party in that last survey.
As in the CBS poll, Democrats’ views of Republicans tend to be a bit more positive. When presented with an opportunity to opine on the characteristics of those in the opposing party, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say their opponents were closed-minded — but Republicans were significantly more likely to say Democrats were unpatriotic, immoral or lazy. In most cases, those negative sentiments had increased since 2016.
Pew’s data also suggest that opinions of the opposing party as an institution are also not particularly warm — but are warmer among Democrats. Neither Democrats nor Republicans see the opposing party as particularly ethical, but Democrats are twice as likely to say the Republican Party cares about the middle class as Republicans are to say the same of the Democratic Party. Democrats are three times as likely to say that the GOP is respectful and tolerant of others as Republicans are to say the same of the Democrats.
[Just] how successful can Biden be if most Republicans view him and his party as their enemy? If two-thirds of Republicans have been convinced that Biden didn’t legitimately win the election, as the CBS poll found, thanks to dishonesty from Biden’s predecessor, abetted by Republican leaders? If Republicans see Democrats and the Democratic Party in hostile, largely negative terms, even more so than Democrats see them?
Our initial presentation of how American politics works as an ideal seems ridiculous in the current political environment.
Not only do Republicans view their political opponents (including other Republicans) as enemies, but they increasingly justify using political violence as a means to achieve political ends rather than having to convince a majority of Americans to vote for their agenda and candidates, as we saw demonstrated on January 6, 2021.
An expert on political violence, Rachel Kleinfeld, writes at Just Security, The GOP’s Militia Problem: Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Lessons from Abroad (excerpt):
Former President Donald Trump is eyeing a return in 2024. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers — militias the Committee has highlighted for their roles as ring leaders for the violence that day — did not see their strength ebb after January 6. On the contrary, violence, first used as a political tool and now partially mainstreamed, has spread.
The events on January 6 are not past. They are prelude.
As a researcher on violence and democracy around the world, I have studied party-linked militia groups for years. In countries like Iraq, Nigeria, Lebanon, and Colombia, politicians outsource violence to specialists in the trade, just as they hire consultants for robocalls and direct mail. In the past, googling these terms brought up countries just escaping from conflict or descending into it. Now, the United States, where militias have been embraced by GOP leaders at the national, state, and local level (as I discuss in detail below), appears among the early search results.
Trump’s flirtation with militia groups began well before the events recounted on January 6. The Oath Keepers assembled to “protect” the polls after then-candidate Trump’s claims of potential fraud – in 2016. Multiple militia groups mobilized in response to Trump’s statements surrounding his inauguration and in response to his calls for more border security. The Oath Keepers provided security to Trump campaign rallies and events in Texas, Minnesota, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere at regular intervals between 2016 and 2020. After Brad Raffensperger, the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia refused to “find 11,780 votes,” he faced death threats that increased after Trump declared him an “enemy of the people.” The family went into hiding following multiple threats, including the appearance of out-of-state Oath Keepers at their home. Speaker Bowers testified that at least one of the crowd members protesting viciously at his home while his daughter lay inside, dying, wore Three Percenter insignia. On Jan. 5, photographs showed Oath Keepers wearing “All access” passes on lanyards as they escorted Roger Stone to a speech he gave by the Supreme Court. And on January 6, militias not only breached the Capitol; Stone appeared to use Oath Keeper militia members as part of his personal security detail that morning.
The January 6 testimony to date has focused on Trump and the ways he has encouraged and instrumentalized militia members. But support for vigilante violence has spread to other parts of the Republican Party. In 2017, the Portland branch of the Republican Party voted to allow militia groups, including members of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, to act as security at their public events; a Colorado county GOP has also hired militia groups for security. In Michigan’s Grand Traverse County, local officials at a zoom-based public meeting were asked to denounce the Proud Boys after the insurrection – instead, the county commission’s vice chair stepped off-screen and returned with his rifle. In Texas, Allen West, then-Chair of the Republican Party, offered an oath to “swear in” militia members at a Stop the Steal rally in November 2020, posed with armed militia members just days after the January 6 riot, and appeared alongside other Republican state politicians at a rally with the leader of the Oath Keepers militia in March after the latter was under investigation for his involvement in the January 6 attack. This winter, a militia-backed recall election ousted the Shasta County, California Board of Supervisors; the new leaders owe their positions to militia support. In Arizona, Mark Finchem, a sitting member of the House, trumpets his membership in the Oath Keeper militia. The chairman of Wyoming’s GOP – engaged in a fierce battle against Liz Cheney, the January 6 Select Committee Vice Chair – is a member of the Oath Keepers.
The Proud Boys are also infiltrating local Republican parties. In Miami-Dade county, a number of Proud Boys appear to have entered parts of the party hierarchy, bringing their violent intimidation with them. In Nevada, the director of the State’s Republican Party has been accused of recruiting Proud Boys to take part in party leadership votes and intimidate candidates running from the more traditional Republican wing of the party in Clark County (which contains Las Vegas and is by far the largest county in Nevada). The faction’s violent threats forced the Clark County Republicans to hire extra security, hold events in gun-free zones such as schools, and ultimately to cancel multiple meetings due to security fears. Proud Boys accosted Rep. Dan Crenshaw and his staff at the GOP’s convention in Texas this month, chanting a term for him popularized by Tucker Carlson.
Far from reducing violence, the 2020 election and its aftermath heralded a step-change in the mainstream acceptance of violence as a political tool. The FBI arrested Michigan gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley this month after he egged on the January 6 crowd in Washington D.C. with cries of “Come on, let’s go. This is it! This is – this is war, baby”. Kelley met this winter with poll workers in Michigan alongside Michigan State Senate candidate Mike Detmer, who suggested in response to concerns about future election fraud: “be prepared to lock and load… If you ask what we can do, show up armed.” Senate candidate Eric Greitens, already facing domestic violence and sexual assault allegations from different women, now has a video showing the former Navy Seal armed and hunting “RINOS.” He encourages his supporters to do the same, given that there is “no bag or tag limit,” as he states, to killing other human beings.
Violent groups that get involved in politics in other countries follow a common path that I detailed in my last book. At first, politicians recruit experts in violence and intimidation to use those tools as a campaign tactic. Later, those violent leaders run for office or take political roles directly, cutting out the political middleman. Usually, what they want is power and impunity, so that they can make money from more lucrative criminal activities, though sometimes they simply want power for its own sake. To understand where this can lead: 11 of India’s current national legislators face open cases for murder, 30 have attempted murder charges and 10 serving legislators have been convicted of such serious crimes – a doubling from ten years ago. Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio, based in Miami, began amassing a criminal record at the age of twenty – but its unclear whether their entrance into Miami politics is at the behest of others or is the beginning of going into business for themselves. In Nevada, it appears more clear that the Proud Boys are still at the first stage, being recruited by unscrupulous political actors who are using their violence to amass more power for themselves.
Why would a faction of Republicans still in power or running for office at the federal, state, and local level make common cause with violent criminals? Because violence and intimidation are already bolstering their power. Intimidation is being successfully used to silence opposition. Representative Gonzalez was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. After threats to his wife and young children, he decided not to run for reelection.
When 13 House Republicans voted to support greater funding for highways, bridges, and other infrastructure, their colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene publicized their phone numbers [doxxing.] A number admitted to receiving threats afterward, suggesting that a new tactic for “whipping” future votes and compelling Members of Congress to vote against the wishes of their districts had been discovered. Indeed, Rep. Peter Meier (R-Mich.) wrote about a Republican colleague who voted against certifying the presidential election out of fear for his family’s safety. And Meijer also said some of his colleagues who voted to impeach Trump have since traveled with armed escorts “out of the fear for their safety,” altering their routines, and getting body armor, which he noted is a reimbursable purchase.
Americans may feel that these incidents of political violence are “high politics” that they can avoid if they steer clear of the political arena. That feeling is widespread in countries I have studied where political violence grows to dangerous levels. It Is always a false hope. In the United States, it is already far more dangerous to exercise freedom of speech than in the recent past. Driving cars into civilians used to be a tactic favored by overseas terrorists. It had been recorded just twice in the United States before James Alex Fields Jr. murdered Heather Heyer by driving into a crowd of counter-protestors at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. Yet from George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020 through September 30, 2021, at least 139 drivers drove their cars into protests across America, injuring 100 – sometimes severely – and killing four. Threats against members of Congress have risen tenfold in the five years since Trump became president, white supremacist activity has risen twelvefold in the same period. For Blacks, Asians, women, and others, hate crimes have increased dramatically in the last five years – and mass shooters emboldened by political rhetoric have struck ordinary citizens going about their ordinary lives from El Paso to Buffalo.
Homicide may seem disconnected from political violence — but in fact, a historical study of homicide from America’s founding discovered that it was tightly correlated with distrust in fellow Americans and in the government. The Pew Foundation has found that trust is at near-historic lows after years of conspiracy mongering. In 2020, murder had the highest one-year jump since 1905 and possibly in recorded U.S. history. Homicide rose all over the country, in cities and rural areas, but increased most sharply in red states. The United States is the only country in the world to have experienced a sharp rise in homicide during the coronavirus, and it rose in the U.S. while nearly every form of non-violent crime fell. Nor is it only adults. Children often enact what their parents only say, acting out the cultural zeitgeist. Between 2016 and 2017, before the mental health challenges caused by the coronavirus and response, physical attacks with a weapon in schools nearly doubled.
[In] the select committee hearings, we heard a Proud Boys leader say that then-President Trump’s comment to “Stand Back and Stand By” tripled their membership. Since the election, the Proud Boys have rallied around anti-critical race theory and covid-masking protests, using mainstream causes to boost their membership; they and other extremist groups became increasingly public at conservative rallies, taking part in nearly half of all armed demonstrations in 2021. Stewart Rhodes, leader of the Oath Keepers, has stated that he expected pardons for those arrested at the January 6 insurrection and money for their legal defense.
Violence is overwhelmingly concentrated on the right. But as Justice Brett Kavanaugh has discovered, once violence has been legitimated as a tool of politics, no one is safe. Violence begets violence – once its use mainstreams, moderates who espouse non-violence appear anemic and unable to offer protection to their side. The middle weakens, while violence eventually takes on a rhythm of reprisal far removed from the original causes.
he full accounting of January 6 is finally being unveiled to the public. But its reverberations continue. Globally, militias commit more political violence than any other group – including governments and insurgents. We might hope the committee’s hearings will be a cause for a national conversation as well as an internal conversation and soul-searching within the GOP. Even if Trump passes from the scene, the embrace of violence and intimidation as a political tactic by a faction of the GOP will cause violence of all types to rise – against all Americans.
Counterterrorism expert Malcolm Nance in his new book “They Want to Kill Americans” traces the rise of what he calls TITUS, or the Trump Insurgency in the United States:
To varying degrees, as many as 74 million Americans have expressed hostility towards American democracy. Their radicalization is increasingly visible in our day to day life: in neighbor’s or family member’s open discussion of bizarre conspiracy theories, reveling in the fantasy of mass murdering the liberals they believe are drinking the blood of children. These are the results of the deranged series of lies stoked by former President Donald Trump, made worse by the global pandemic.
The first steps of an American fracture were predicted by Malcolm Nance months before the January 6, 2021 insurrection, heralding the start of a generational terror threat greater than either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Nance calls this growing unrest the Trump Insurgency in the United States or TITUS.
The post-2020 election urge to return to a place of “normalcy”—to forget—is the worst response we can have. American militiamen, terrorists, and radicalized political activists are already armed in mass numbers and regularly missed in the media; principally because Trump’s most loyal and violent foot soldiers benefit from the ultimate privilege—being white.
They Want to Kill Americans is the first detailed look into the heart of the active Trump-led insurgency, setting the stage for a second nation-wide rebellion on American soil. This is a chilling and deeply researched early warning to the nation from a counterterrorism intelligence professional: America is primed for a possible explosive wave of terrorist attacks and armed confrontations that aim to bring about a Donald Trump led dictatorship.
Republicans are now increasingly embracing secession from the United States, as many of their Southern Confederate ancestors did before the Civil War.
The Texas Republican Party in June adopted a party platform plank endorsing a referendum on the state seceding from the United States. Texas Republicans Get Deadly Serious About Secession:
The Texas GOP platform is routinely viewed as a hodgepodge of far-right fantasies, and these planks do nothing to contradict that verdict.
But another plank deserves more attention than it has received, because presents a historic break—and points to the direction for the Trumpist right moving forward. With its new platform, the Texas Republican Party has formally endorsed a referendum on the state seceding from the United States.
The federal government, the platform claims, “has impaired our right of local self-government.” Given that Texas supposedly “retains the right to secede from the United States,” the “Texas Legislature should be called upon to pass a referendum” on secession. Nor would such a referendum be an abstract exercise. Instead, the Republican Party of Texas believes that such a referendum should be held next year, with the Texas legislature “pass[ing a] bill in its next session requiring a referendum in the 2023 general election.”
[P]ut another way: For the first time since 1861, an American state’s ruling party has formally endorsed a referendum on secession.
The party’s formal endorsement of a vote on removing Texas from the United States isn’t the party’s first historic lurch toward state fracture. Last year, an American legislator filed the first serious bill since the Civil War calling for a referendum on secession. Introduced by Kyle Biedermann, a Republican in the Texas House, the bill ended up stalling out in committee. But it also received a flood of support before it did, with a range of endorsements from a number of other Republicans in the Texas legislature. At least one state senator, Republican Lois Kolkhorst, came out in favor of a secession referendum, as did former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West.
Little matter, of course, that secession—including Texas’s proposed secession—remains illegal. (As Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice, once wrote, “If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.”) Little matter, likewise, that pushing for breaking up the United States stands antithetical to claims of patriotism, or of supporting “America First,” or of backing policies that would benefit things like the American economy or American national security. Such concerns appear almost archaic compared to the current state of the Trumpist right, which appears increasingly willing to burn down the country and unwind American democracy—as seen most spectacularly in this month’s hearings of the House Jan. 6th Committee—all in the name of seeking and seizing power.
It’s not just those batshit crazy Texans, either. It is a substantial percentage of the Republican Party writ large. Andrew Romano reports, Poll: Many red-state Trump voters say they’d be ‘better off’ if their state seceded from U.S.:
Red-state Donald Trump voters are now more likely to say they’d be personally “better off” (33%) than “worse off” (29%) if their state seceded from the U.S. and “became an independent country,” according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.
It’s a striking rejection of national unity that dramatizes the growing culture war between Democratic- and Republican-controlled states on core issues such as guns, abortion and democracy itself. And an even larger share of red-state Trump voters say their state as a whole would be better off (35%) rather than worse off (30%) if it left the U.S.
The survey of 1,672 U.S. adults, which was conducted from July 8 to 11, comes as a series of hard-line conservative decisions by the Supreme Court — coupled with continued gridlock on Capitol Hill — have shifted America’s center of political gravity back to the states, where the parties in power are increasingly filling the federal void with far-reaching reforms of their own.
The further apart they push their states — on voting rights, on misinformation, on post-Roe regulations, on gun-safety measures — the more the country morphs into what one political analyst has described as “a federated republic of two nations: Blue Nation and Red Nation.”
[R]egardless of where they live, most Americans are hardly ready to dissolve the union (even though, in a previous Yahoo News/YouGov poll, a majority of Republicans [52%] did predict that “there will be a civil war in the United States in [their] lifetime”).
Overall, just 17% of Americans actually want their state to “leave the U.S. and become an independent country,” a number that is remarkably consistent across party lines. Only slightly more (19%) favor the U.S. eventually becoming “two countries — one consisting of ‘blue states’ run by Democrats and one consisting of ‘red states’ run by Republicans.”
But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that this level of consensus is, in part, an illusion.
For the purposes of the survey, Yahoo News defined red states as those with consistent Republican control on the state level in recent years, and blue states as those with consistent Democratic control. Divided states were excluded.
Yet despite obvious and expected differences in party composition, neither red nor blue states consist of anywhere near monolithically Republican or Democratic populations. In fact, across all Yahoo News/YouGov polls conducted so far this year, more than a third of red-state respondents (34%) identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents; likewise, more than a quarter of blue-state respondents (26%) identify as Republicans or Republican leaners.
Note: the actual divide in this country, and within every state, is between urban and rural voters. There is a substantial body of political sicence research documenting this divide. Guian McKee explained in the Washington Post last year, Our urban/rural political divide is both new — and decades in the making (excerpt):
This “geographic sort” between metro and non-metro areas has also played out across issues including variations in coronavirus vaccination rates, ongoing legislative redistricting fights and people’s very identities, with many extolling the virtues of hailing from a city or the country, and feeling alien from those living in the opposite circumstance.
Today’s blue/red divide then plays out not between regions — as we saw in the famous 2000 electoral map, which introduced the concept of such divisions and pitted red states vs. blue ones — but between metropolitan and rural areas within states.
In other words, there are a lot of blue-state and red-state residents who have more in common with their political brethren elsewhere than with their governors or state legislatures.
To truly gauge the gap between red states and blue states, then, it helps to set aside these mostly powerless political minorities and focus instead on the dominant voters who are actually steering state leaders to the left or the right.
Among red-state Trump voters, 92% trust their state government more than the federal government to do “what’s best.” Almost as many (86%) say the federal government is “not working well”; a full two-thirds (67%) insist it’s not working well “at all.”
In contrast, nearly 8 in 10 red-state Trump voters (79%) say their state government is working well, with huge majorities approving of how state leaders are handling guns (78%), democracy (73%), COVID-19 (71%), race (69%), the economy (68%), crime (65%) and abortion (63%).
As a result, red-state Trump voters are alone in saying that it’s more important for “individual states to make their own laws with minimal interference from the federal government” (56%) than it is for “the federal government to protect people’s constitutional rights when violated by state laws” (33%). [The Segregationists’ war cry of ‘States Rights!”]
And red-state Trump voters divide roughly down the middle on the question of whether things would be better (37%) or worse (40%) if the country as a whole actually split into a Blue Nation and a Red Nation. No other cohort views disunion so favorably.
Blue-state Joe Biden voters, for instance, are only slightly more inclined (27%) than Americans as a whole (21%) to say things would be better if America broke in two. Just 14% want their own state to secede, versus 29% of red-state Trump voters. And only slightly more blue-state Biden voters (21%) think they themselves would be better off in such a scenario; a full 47% say they’d be worse off.
[B]ut much like red-state Trump voters, blue-state Biden voters also prefer their state government to the federal government by sizable margins.
In fact, blue-state Biden voters (75%) are actually more likely than red-state Trump voters (65%) to say America as a whole would be better off if it “did things more like [their] state.” They’re also more likely to say their state government is working well (84%) — and nearly as likely to say they trust their state government (80%) over the federal government (20%) to do “what’s best.”
Frustrated by the 60-vote threshold to defeat a filibuster, most Biden voters everywhere (53%) say the U.S. Senate has “too much power”; more than three-quarters (76%) say the same of the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court. Nearly half of Biden voters (48%) say they’ve “considered moving to a different country because of politics.” And nearly 6 in 10 blue-state Trump voters say they’ve considered moving to another state for the same reason.
The U. S. Senate is a failed institution. It needs to be reimagined and reinvented as a democratic institution which represents the will of the majority. When the Senate becomes functional again, public faith in government will return. Congress has the power to limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court for judicial review. It just has to act. Congress also has the power to expand the size of the Supreme Court to dilute the influence of the activist radical Republicans on the Court. It just has to act. The most intractable problem is a constitutional amendment to abolish the anti-democratic Electoral College for the popular vote election of the president, like in every other political contest in every democracy in the world.
In short, America’s “great divergence” isn’t a one-sided phenomenon. It’s happening in both red America and blue America.
Why? The new Yahoo News/YouGov poll hints at two reasons. The first is pervasive — and not particularly partisan — disillusionment with America as a whole.
Exactly two years ago, a clear plurality of Americans (46%) told Yahoo News and YouGov that the nation’s “best days are still to come”; at the time, just 25% believed the United States’ best days were “behind us.”
Now those numbers are reversed, with 37% saying our best days are behind us and just 31% saying they’re still to come. Similarly, just 19% of Americans predicted two years ago that “their children” would be worse off than they are; today, a full 46% believe the “next generation” will be worse off than their own. That’s a stunning change.
Overall, two-thirds of Americans (65%) say the federal government is not working well. Just 23% say the opposite.
It’s no wonder, then, that blue- and red-state residents who agree with the party in power there are retreating into their respective geographic corners. It’s no wonder, either, that they increasingly see each other as cautionary tales — the second factor that seems to be supercharging the “great divergence.”