On Oct. 12, 2018, a crowd of Proud Boys arrived at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan. They had come to the Upper East Side club from around the country for a speech by the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes. It was a high point for the Proud Boys — which until that point had been known best as an all-male right-wing street-fighting group — in their embrace by mainstream politics.
The Metropolitan Republican Club is an emblem of the Republican establishment. It was founded in 1902 by supporters of Theodore Roosevelt, and it’s where New York City Republicans such as Fiorello La Guardia and Rudy Giuliani announced their campaigns. But the presidency of Donald Trump whipped a faction of the Metropolitan Republican Club into “an ecstatic frenzy,” said John William Schiffbauer, a Republican consultant who used to work for the state G.O.P. on the second floor of the club.
The McInnes invitation was controversial, even before a group of Proud Boys left the building and violently confronted protesters who had gathered outside. Two of the Proud Boys were later convicted of attempted assault and riot and given four years in prison. The judge who sentenced them explained the relatively long prison term: “I know enough about history to know what happened in Europe in the ’30s when political street brawls were allowed to go ahead without any type of check from the criminal justice system,” he said. Seven others pleaded guilty in the episode.
And yet Republicans at the New York club have not distanced themselves from the Proud Boys. Soon after the incident, a candidate named Ian Reilly, who, former club members say, had a lead role in planning the speech, won the next club presidency. He did so in part by recruiting followers of far-right figures, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, to pack the club’s ranks at the last minute. A similar group of men repeated the strategy at the New York Young Republicans Club, filling it with far-right members, too.
Many moderate Republicans have quit the clubs in disgust. Looking back, Mr. Schiffbauer said, Oct. 12, 2018, was a “proto” Jan. 6.
In conflicts like this one — not all of them played out so publicly — there is a fight underway for the soul of the Republican Party. On one side are Mr. Trump and his followers, including extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. On the other side stand those in the party who remain committed to the principle that politics, even the most contentious politics, must operate within the constraints of peaceful democracy. It is vital that this pro-democracy faction win out over the extremists and push the fringes back to the fringes.
It has happened before. The Republican Party successfully drove the paranoid extremists of the John Birch Society out of public life in the 1960s. Party leaders could do so again for the current crop of conspiracy peddlers. Voters may do it for them, as they did in so many races in this year’s midterm elections. But this internal Republican Party struggle is important for reasons far greater than the tally in a win/loss column. A healthy democracy requires both political parties to be fully committed to the rule of law and not to entertain or even tacitly encourage violence or violent speech. A large faction of one party in our country fails that test, and that has consequences for all of us.
Extremist violence is the country’s top domestic terrorist threat, according to a three-year investigation by the Democratic staff members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which reported its findings last week. “Over the past two decades, acts of domestic terrorism have dramatically increased,” the committee said in its report. “National security agencies now identify domestic terrorism as the most persistent and lethal terrorist threat to the homeland. This increase in domestic terror attacks has been predominantly perpetrated by white supremacist and anti-government extremist individuals and groups.” While there have been recent episodes of violent left-wing extremism, for the past few years, political violence has come primarily from the right.
This year has been marked by several high-profile acts of political violence: an attempted break-in at an F.B.I. office in Ohio; the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of the speaker of the House; the mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo by a white supremacist; an armed threat against Justice Brett Kavanaugh; a foiled plan to attack a synagogue in New York.
It is impossible to fully untangle the relationship between conspiracy theories and violence. But what Americans do know should sound alarms: A survey this year found that some 18 million Americans believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and that force is justified to return him to power. Of those 18 million, eight million own guns, and one million either belong to a paramilitary group or know someone who does. That’s alarming because violent people who belong to communities, online or offline, where violence is widely accepted are more likely to act. A portion of the G.O.P. has become such a community.
The full extent of this violence is not well documented. The Senate committee’s damning report concluded that the federal government, specifically the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security, has “failed to systematically track and report data on domestic terrorism as required by federal law, has not appropriately allocated its resources to match the current threat and has not aligned its definitions to make its investigations consistent and its actions proportional to the threat of domestic terrorism.” Those shortcomings need to be urgently remedied.
Beyond the obvious need for better data on extremist violence, preventing or stopping the spread of extremism is complicated, although there are some important, concrete steps that can be taken. This board has argued for stronger enforcement of state anti-militia laws, closer monitoring of extremists in law enforcement and the military, and better international cooperation to tackle this transnational issue. Social media companies need to develop new tools to keep extremist material off their platforms and adjust their algorithms so users aren’t exposed to ever more extreme content.
Yet one of the most effective ways to deter political violence is to make it unacceptable in public life. To do that, all political leaders have an important role to play. In a speech in September, President Biden did his part, when he identified the threat that the dominance of specifically “MAGA Republicans” poses not just to the Democratic Party but to the entire country. “They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country,” Mr. Biden said.
A couple of months after that speech, Americans voted in midterm elections in which hundreds of “MAGA Republicans” who had enthusiastically spread extremist statements, lies and conspiracy theories ran for local, state and federal offices. Voters rejected many of them, and while that is encouraging, elections alone are not enough.
The campaign season was marked by numerous incidents in which many Republicans used speech that has been linked to violence. They depicted gay and transgender people as “groomers”; they helped spread the racist so-called great replacement theory that has inspired numerous mass shootings; they promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, not to mention ubiquitous lies about fraud and the 2020 election, which led to the Jan. 6 attack.
Despite voters’ repudiation of many of his acolytes, Mr. Trump has announced his return to the campaign trail, a move that promises to dial up the enthusiasm of his most devoted adherents. They include, of course, members of the Proud Boys. During a debate during the 2020 campaign, Mr. Trump refused to disavow them or their movement and instead told them to “stand back and stand by.” And so they did until Jan. 6.
Mr. Trump’s reinstatement on Twitter means not only further proliferation of “degrading and dehumanizing discourse,” as Brian L. Ott, an author of “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage,” warned in these pages a few days ago, but also a greater likelihood of violence. As Mr. Ott explains: “Social media generally and Twitter specifically lend themselves to simple, urgent, unreflective and emotionally charged communication. When the message is one of intolerance and violence, the result is all but certain.”
Leaders in politics, law enforcement, the media and elsewhere have an obligation to do everything they can to remove from public life those who participate in or endorse political violence.
The onus falls on Republicans. While voters this month rejected some of the most extreme candidates, the party is still very much under the spell of Mr. Trump and his brand of authoritarianism. Two prominent Republicans who have been outspoken about right-wing extremism and baseless lies, Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, have been driven out of office. Meanwhile, the spread of conspiracy theories that have already inspired violence continues unabated from politicians and conservative media.
Even if Mr. Trump doesn’t become the party’s nominee for president, the party and many of its supporters seem to have convinced themselves that the spread of extremism in service of their causes is not an urgent concern. Those who can influence the direction of the party — its voters and its biggest donors and supporters — must do everything they can to convince them otherwise. American democracy depends on it.
Democrats, too, have a role to play. They should not spend money on far-right fringe candidates in the primaries with the hopes of beating them in general elections. To do so only further pollutes the public square, even if it can lead to Democratic victories, as it apparently did this year. Rather than giving in to the temptation to tar the entire party with the actions of its worst members, Democrats should continue to find opportunities for bipartisanship whenever possible.
The alternative is allowing extremism to run rampant until the degradation of American politics is complete.
A scene in Roanoke, Texas, this summer gave a chilling preview of what that future might look like if violence from the right begets violence from the left, in a country deeply divided and with far more guns than people. A group of armed right-wing demonstrators turned up to protest a drag queen brunch only to find another group of people, dressed in black and holding military-style rifles. The second group called themselves the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club and reportedly took it upon themselves to provide security for the event. The local police separated the two groups and made no arrests, but this kind of confrontation is not a sign of healthy democratic debate.
Political disagreement need not include the menace of violence. Americans, and their political leaders, have the ability to choose a different future.
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