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Missouri Senate primary highlights rise of violent rhetoric on the right

By Eric Bergerin St Louis, Missouri
The former Missouri governor Eric Greitens, who has posed with guns in campaign ads and is accused of domestic violence, is running for Senate.
The former Missouri governor Eric Greitens, who has posed with guns in campaign ads and is accused of domestic violence, is running for Senate. Photograph: Jeff Roberson/AP

On 25 April, the former Missouri governor Eric Greitens, now running for US Senate, posted a video on Twitter of him and Donald Trump Jr, firing semi-automatic rifles at a range.

“Striking fear in the hearts of liberals everywhere,” the former president’s son said.

In the accompanying post, Greitens wrote: “Striking fear into the hearts of liberals, RINOs, and the fake media.”

Greitens, a former Navy Seal, shared the video even though a woman whom he had an affair with accused him of tying her up and tearing her clothes off without her consent, which was part of a scandal that precipitated his resignation as governor. His ex-wife, Sheena, accused him of knocking her down and hitting one of their sons hard enough to knock one of his teeth loose, according to an affidavit filed as part of a child custody dispute.

She also alleged that he purchased a gun, refused to tell her where it was and threatened to kill himself unless she expressed public support for him.

Greitens’ gun-focused messaging is concerning, according to researchers who study links between communication and political violence, not only because more than a third of the mass shooters in recent years also had a history of committing domestic violence, according to a Bloomberg report.

But it’s also part of a significant increase among politicians – largely Republicans – in recent years in references to guns and threatening language in campaign ads, according to researchers.

That rhetoric contributes to polarization in our society and can translate to physical violence, they say.

Given the tense political climate, researchers expect rhetoric from rightwing political figures to continue to coarsen and lead to more violence before the pendulum swings back to a less charged time.

“Violence is in politics as a violation of the idea that people have an equal say in the political process of choosing their governments and of being able to express themselves freely,” said Nathan Kalmoe, professor of political communication at Louisiana State University and author of Radical American Partisanship. “Clearly this kind of messaging, where you’re calling out political opponents while you’re shooting at a gun range, is a kind of a violent threat.”

Since Donald Trump became president in 2016, the number of threats against members of Congress has soared, according to data provided by the Capitol police to news organizations. That year, there were 902 threats against the lawmakers. In 2021, there were 9,600.

Republicans are also more likely than Democrats to think civilians may need to engage in combat to save America. A majority of Republicans support the possible use of force to preserve the “traditional American way of life”, according to a 2021 George Washington University Politics Poll. Among Democrats the number was 15%.

When asked if a time will come when “patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands”, 47% of Republicans agreed, as opposed to 9% of Democrats.

About one-third of Republicans also agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”, according to a 2021 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. Among Democrats, the number was 18%.

But the use of incendiary speech to rile up supporters in a democracy did not start with Trump.

“Certainly, we’ve experienced time periods in the US that were as divisive and as polarized as today,” James Piazza, professor of political science at Penn State University, said. “It kind of goes in waves. And if you look at the type of speech and rhetoric that politicians used in those previous eras of polarization and division, they look a lot like what you see today; it’s dehumanizing speech.”

Trump and other Republicans are using threatening language to tap into anger about the shifting demographics of the United States and the sense that a Christian way of life is coming under threat, according to political scientists.

“Trump played into that anger and amplified it and went much further than most Republican leaders, especially the most prominent, had gone in very explicitly making these statements, not just the election rejection, but also the other kinds of anti-democratic statements, including hostility towards various racial, ethnic and religious minority groups,” said Kalmoe.

One key difference between the Trump era and other highly polarized periods is the advent of social media, which amplifies speech by instantly sending it to millions of people and often strips nuance from a statement, according to Helio Fred Garcia, professor of professional development and leadership at Columbia University and the author of Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.

“There’s a giant megaphone that is out there,” said Piazza, who authored a study on the connection between political hate speech and domestic terrorism. “There really is a whole new realm of the ability to mobilize people, to radicalize people, to have more fringe voices play an outsized role in national discussions.”

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene gestures at the end of Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in February.
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene gestures at the end of Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in February. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Greitens is not alone among Republicans in using such incendiary language. For example, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, recently told Real America’s Voice, a media group, “The Democrats are the party of pedophiles. The Democrats are the party of princess predators from Disney … Their identity is the most disgusting, evil, horrible thing happening in our country.”

In interviews, political scientists said such language was occurring mostly but not exclusively on the right. But they struggled to provide examples of Democrats doing the same thing.

In 2018, former attorney general Eric Holder, who served in Obama administration, said: “When they go low, we kick ’em. That’s what this new Democratic party is about.”

“Immediately the right jumped on him and said, ‘He’s provoking violence.’” Garcia said. “Interestingly, the same people who said, ‘No, Trump isn’t promoting violence,’” criticized Holder.

Given the charged political climate, the academics say more violence like – or worse than – the January 6 Capitol riot is inevitable. Piazza said this wave of divisiveness and polarization is reminiscent of the time before the civil war when “you had similar politician rhetoric to mobilize voters and to demobilize and demonize the other side that resulted in political violence”.

That said, Piazza does not expect something like the civil war to erupt.

“We do actually have pretty strong political institutions in the United States, and we have strong security institutions. The US military is extraordinarily professionalized, and the US military has done an extremely good job of being apolitical,” he said.

Garcia also forecasts more violence. He thought the US could return to a more normal place after the end of Trump’s presidency but because Trump still insists he won, Garcia thinks it will take more than eight years and further carnage for the pendulum to swing back to a more normal place.

To avoid that, Piazza and others call for more regulation of social media. He is encouraged by bipartisan efforts to hold the companies accountable.

He hopes the government introduces regulations so that a politician “trying to rile people up for political gain or attention, or to raise money, wouldn’t be able to get away with that on social media. They would have to really watch what they had to say in terms of demonizing others and engaging in hate speech,” he said.

In the meantime, Greitens ranks third in the Republican Senate primary polling but still leads against Democratic candidates, according to FiveThirtyEight. Greitens and his primary opponents did not respond to requests for comment.

In the campaign ad, Greitens and Trump switch from the semi-automatic rifles to handguns.

It closes with them firing more shots and Greitens saying: “Liberals beware.”

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Dive Deeper:
Top House Republican condemned for baseless ‘pedo’ slur aimed at Democrats
‘Anyone claiming to legitimately care about children should stop using rhetoric that will get people killed’
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Get all your news in one place