Contrary to what many professional centrists and hope-peddlers in the American mainstream news media and political class would like to believe, the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol was not the climax of the Age of Trump. In reality, Jan. 6 was a proof of concept for how the Republican fascists will use political violence to obtain and keep power against and over the democratic will of the American people in an increasingly diverse society. In all, Jan. 6 was not the end of something but rather the next chapter in what journalist Jeff Sharlet has described as a “slow civil war” here in America.
To that point, in response to his indictment for his alleged crimes of Jan. 6 and the larger plot against democracy, Trump has been escalating his threats of violence, both direct and implied, against Special Counsel Jack Smith, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Judge Tanya Chutkan and the other prosecutors, members of law enforcement, and potential jurors who are attempting to hold him accountable under the law. Law enforcement and other experts in domestic terrorism and national security are continuing to warn that Trump, his MAGA followers and the larger white right constitute an extreme danger to the country’s security. On Wednesday, for example, the FBI said that a Utah man who had made threats to President Biden and several prosecutors on different Trump criminal cases was shot and killed during an FBI raid.
In an attempt to understand what comes next with an imperiled Donald Trump and the growing reality of right-wing violence and its impact on American democracy and society, and how the Republican Party and larger white right are not merely “polarized” from the mainstream of American political society but have actually become radicalized into extremism in its various forms, including violence, I recently spoke with leading democracy expert Trygve Olson. He is the author of the Lincoln Democracy Institute’s new research project, the “Democracy Index,” whose goal is “focused on quantifying and comprehending the existential crises we are facing in American democracy today.”
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Beyond the critically important new research you have conducted about the country’s democracy crisis and violence, how are you feeling at this point in the Age of Trump?
Having worked around the world fighting for democracy in places like Ukraine, Belarus, Nigeria, and Venezuela, the Age of Trump is sad and perhaps not unexpected. I found that a slide into autocracy through extremism, radicalization, and violence can happen anywhere.
So far, America’s democratic institutions and democratic guardrails are holding on. Still, we see the challenges presented by a cycle of political extremism (polarization, normalization, demonization, and violence) coupled with Trump’s willingness to pursue and permanently obtain power by any means necessary, which causes cracks that can ultimately destroy a democracy.
Several weeks ago, Donald Trump de facto commanded his followers to assassinate President Obama. What is the big picture about political violence and extremism in the Age of Trump and beyond? Where are we?
I have found that universally, autocratic actors – and Trump is one – use six tactics to gain and maintain power. They are Big Ideas/Big Lies, Misinformation/Disinformation, Marginalization of Opponents, Dependency of Allies, Divide and Conquer, Threats, Repression and Violence.
The assumption is that autocratic actors resort to violence often. Yet in reality, they do so only when they are most vulnerable in order to send a message about the consequences of crossing them. That is why Mike Pence was the target on Jan 6. No one was more loyal to Trump than Mike Pence, so if Trump was willing to send the mob to get Pence, what message did that send to lesser and lower-level appeasers?
We are witnessing Trump telling America that if he doesn’t get his way — regardless of democratic norms like elections or the rule of law — then you will get violence. While it isn’t exactly the same as what Putin was saying to Ukrainians, it is the same principle and concept at work. In both cases, we need to take them at their word, be vigilant and united in standing up to their attempts to overturn norms. Whether they are international in the case of Putin or domestic in the case of Trump.
As a whole, the mainstream American news media keeps defaulting to incorrect language such as “the potential for violence” or “extremist threat” when in reality the violence is already here and experts in law enforcement and national security have been trying to sound the alarm repeatedly. But for a range of reasons including denial and normalcy bias those warnings appear to be falling on deaf ears.
Your premise is spot on. I think the challenge for the media is the assumption that the norms of our democracy apply to Trump. Our democracy and its institutions are based on the idea of a win-win game, where even if you don’t get all of what you want, you get enough to make it worthwhile. This plays out when a candidate loses an election, their supporters will consent to be governed and not resort to violence because they know that there is another free and fair election in a few years.
The problem for the media is Donald Trump isn’t playing a game based on democracy’s rules. He and his supporters believe that for him to win, the other side must lose. This game is the one all autocratic actors play. For Trump, he must return to office to escape being held accountable and potentially spending the rest of his life in jail. The media typically misses that Trump uses the norms of our democracy but to the end of his zero-sum game.
What does your new research reveal and help us to better understand about political violence and polarization in the Age of Trump and beyond?
Polarization is often the first step in a cycle of political extremism, which can lead to Violence. In between, you have a normalization of the division that polarization causes and the demonization of the others who don’t share your political side. The nation has reached a stage where demonization has become the norm for much of the right in America today. There are also some on the far left as well, but our research shows that some of that is in response to what is happening on the right.
It’s a vicious cycle with one side’s actions leading to the other responding in kind. And it’s what makes 2024’s election so dangerous for the nation: Trump’s wing has already demonstrated its use of Violence and there is the worry the left could respond if it happens again.
Now that Trump has normalized saying elections are fraudulent, we must ask whether either side is willing to accept an election result they don’t like and concede power to the other without resorting to violence.
Definitions matter: how do you operationalize the concept of “polarization”. That word is thrown around too much by the mainstream news media, commentariot, and larger political class and it is not properly defined or specified. What do we know empirically?
Our research shows the difference between the political right and left today is that roughly a quarter of the right isn’t just politically extreme but fully radicalized. It is these radicalized actors that are more prone to believing that Violence is a viable answer that might be necessary.
Both sides have issues with political extremism – which is how much tolerance they hold for differing political views – that is really at the heart of polarization. I think some of the use of polarization in both the media context and by our political class is not fully understood within the realities of what I call, the Game We Know (Democracy) and the Game We Are In (autocracy and zero-sum).
Can you elaborate on the Normalization, Polarization, Demonization, and Violence model that you apply in your new research?
The model came out of academia post-9/11 and captures the cycle of how political extremism typically works.
If you think about what happened from election night 2020 through events on Jan. 6, you had Trump suggesting the “elections were a fraud” from the White House on election night. Polling suggested most Republicans didn’t buy his lies. But as the message was repeated by Trump and his allies, with constant drumming from the right-wing media ecosystem, there was a shift in how Republicans felt. That was how the ‘Big Lie’ was normalized – a false grievance playing off polarization.
Ultimately, violence happened after creating a Need. The election is a fraud. Network – Join Fellow Patriots in Washington on J6 to defend your nation. Narrative – We are going to walk down to the Capitol/Mike Pence didn’t do the right thing.
What do we know about how Republicans and Trumpists view violence as a tool for advancing their political goals? How are their views about political violence and its legitimacy different from those held by Democrats and other voters?
So non-MAGA Republicans, those who don’t self-identify as MAGA conservatives, are no more likely than those on the left to see violence as acceptable within our democracy. Those who say they are MAGA conservatives are far more likely to suggest violence is acceptable or necessary to save the country. The problem is when you are in a cycle like the one the nation is currently enduring, you run the risk of things escalating quickly.
A scenario that could be born out: If the day after the 2024 Election, the nation learns that Trump has lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College, where do we go? How likely are those on the left to concede power back to a man who is unwilling to give it up and who has undoubtedly implied that if he gets it back, he will use it to maintain power?
Those are fair questions and if we are honest with ourselves, we realize there is a real problem on both sides. If Trump didn’t accept the results in 2020, why would we think he and his supporters will in 2024?
Trumpism and American neofascist are cultural problems that are much larger than any one person or leader.
Our data confirms the problem of radicalization on the right is far deeper than Trump. That said, it is also true that for radicalized and extremist groups, leadership is not easily transferable. I think the bigger issue is how much Trump has normalized the demonization of the left (or any others for that matter) within the GOP. This is shown to some degree by all the candidates running, particularly with DeSantis basing his campaign the way he has.
What did you find most disturbing and/or troubling from your new research findings?
I was shocked by the dangerously high amounts of radicalization. I think the fact that so many on both sides of the political spectrum are either distrusting or intolerant of the other side of the spectrum is a disaster waiting to happen. The reality is that despite the left’s denials (or hopes) the data shows Trump has a very good chance of winning the Electoral College again (probably a 47% to 49% chance). This is a real problem.
Donald Trump is facing multiple criminal trials. He is escalating his threats of violence and mayhem. He is only going to get worse. You are not psychic. But based on your new research and deep professional experience, what do you want to prepare the American people and their leaders for?
I have found from my work worldwide that autocratic actors like Trump have the same objective: to gain and maintain power. They use the same strategy: creating a perception of inevitability and invincibility through fear. They all generally use the tactics I outlined above.
Donald Trump isn’t playing the game by the rules of our democracy. We have to recognize when we have someone playing a zero-sum game. There is no potential for a win-win upon which our democracy depends. We must be prepared to take him at his word that he is going to try using violence if he has to in order to win.
The best way to ensure Trump fails is to ensure he can’t use the threats to our democracy to destroy our democracy. That means he must be held to the same laws and justice system as any other American, and it means he must be resoundingly defeated in the next election. By this, I mean Biden must win by a large enough margin to ensure the flipping of no single state’s electoral votes would put Trump in power.
about Trump’s threat