After tweeting an altered anime video that depicted him killing the Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Joe Biden, the Republican Congressman Paul Gosar was censured and removed from his congressional committees this week by the U.S. Congress. Democrats, who control the House, condemned the video. (“We cannot have a member joking about murdering each other or threatening the President of the United States,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi.) But only two Republicans supported Gosar’s censure, and their party’s leadership. including former President Donald Trump, rallied behind the congressman. All of this comes as threats of political violence are becoming more mainstream on the American right, nearly a year after pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Trump himself, who’s repeatedly used violent political rhetoric, is now defending the Capitol rioters who chanted about hanging Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence. Threats against lawmakers, school-board members, and election officials are increasing across the country. National media commentators are asking whether the country could be headed toward a new civil war. What’s happening here?

Lilliana Mason is an associate research professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and the co-author of the upcoming book Radical American Partisanship. Mason reassures us that the vast majority of Americans still abhor the idea of political violence, but according to her research, extreme partisans on the left and right increasingly envision realistic scenarios where it could be justified. Yet there’s a visible asymmetry between Democratic and Republican leaders: Republican politicians are actively weakening norms against violence. According to Mason, the media is also helping propel this phenomenon, as exaggerating the prospects of political violence from one group of Americans can lead to more support for the idea of violence against that group from others.


Graham Vyse: What’s going on with social norms about political violence in the United States?

Lilliana Mason: Since 2017, Nathan Kalmoe and I have been collecting data on the approval of political violence and what we call “moral disengagement,” which is basically the precursor to violence: Wherever there’s been a mass-violence event, it’s been preceded by a lot of messaging that dehumanizes and vilifies the people who were the ultimate target of violence.

We’re seeing some increases in the approval of violence. In general, people belonging to the party out of power are more approving toward the idea of violence—so, throughout the Trump administration, it was something like 10 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats. That switched immediately after the 2020 election. Now Republicans are more approving.

These attitudes respond to political events. We saw a spike around the first impeachment of Donald Trump, where Republican partisans approved more of sending threats to people from the other party, harassing them, and making them feel frightened. The strongest partisans tend to approve of the idea of violence more.

We’ve also looked at the role of racial resentment. Republicans who are high in racial resentment tend to think of Democrats as inhuman and evil. Democrats who are low in racial resentment tend to think of Republicans as inhuman and evil.

Kaique Rocha

That’s part of the reason everything is so intense: The parties have basically reorganized themselves around whether to become a more multiethnic, egalitarian democracy or go back in time to when white, Christian, rural men were at the top of the social hierarchy and everyone respected that. That’s the main divide right now, and it’s a tough divide for people to talk about. There’s not a lot of room for compromise.

Vyse: How does this phenomenon look on the right and left respectively?

Mason: In the electorate, we see similar dynamics with Republicans and Democrats. But among elites, there’s definitely more violent rhetoric coming from the right than the left. The main example of this is the January 6th insurrection—and the entire ceremony beforehand, in which multiple speakers encouraged violent behavior. Either the stakes aren’t clear to a lot of Republicans or they don’t care about them.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in