The New Mexico story is harrowing.
Semi-automatic shells raged through officials’ homes. Civil servants fear for their lives. The children woke up to the sound of gunfire.
It’s a nightmare, and it would be even more shocking if it wasn’t so predictable.
The allegation that Republican candidate Solomon Peña hired someone to open fire on the homes of Democratic politicians grabbed headlines, but it should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. Our political environment is primed for this kind of terrorism, and Pena’s apparent motivations — that he was “rigged” to lose 40 percentage points in the election — have become an increasingly familiar chorus.
No doubt it was inspired in part by former President Donald Trump. It is undeniable that Trump’s campaign denial pressure played a role in fueling the anti-democratic movement in the United States. His insistence that the 2020 election was stolen from him shows how his supporters want to believe that any campaign that doesn’t clearly do what they want can easily be dismissed as invalid.
This kind of thinking is extremely dangerous and contributed to the attempted coup on January 6, 2021, but equally dangerous is his fear-mongering behavior. Since he emerged on the modern political scene peddling dangerous fertility theories to please the Fox News loyal audience, he has profited from repetition and the creation of bigoted narratives that also serve to radicalize his followers. When I covered his rallies in the past, he would tell his supporters to rough up protesters, and I always understood that it wasn’t just about venting their anger: it was about fighting a larger conspiracy. They prefer to talk openly about rounding up “conspirators,” imprisoning them, and even killing them in cold blood.
But to say that this environment is entirely created by Trump is pure fiction. Political violence is older than the country, and its origins and inspirations are traceable. Whether it’s the colonization of continents, the enslavement of millions, or the civil war itself, oppression and violence are hallmarks of this culture. Even refusing to vote is part of our history. After all, the Confederacy was an expression of the South’s refusal to accept losing power at the ballot, and the Ku Klux Klan was created primarily to undermine democracy during Reconstruction. Decades later, in 1898, an overt white supremacist mob in Wilmington, North Carolina overthrew the local government and massacred African-Americans in an orgy of racial violence.
For context, we also have to understand that the years and years of Jim Crow and the segregated South were rooted in these same fears and ideas. The brutality of civil rights protesters in the streets, as well as political murders, assassinations, and bombings, are symptoms of a problem that is as intertwined with American history as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In short, this problem didn’t start with Donald Trump, nor will it end with him. It is one thing to expect him to be prosecuted for any of his crimes and corruption, but to believe that this will somehow lower the temperature or prevent these tragic events or their escalation is not only reckless, but exacerbates the problem.
Democracy itself, and the quest for better, fairer representative government, is inextricably linked to attacks on democracy, because enforcing the will of the majority is putting the interests of the few at risk. It’s complicated, and a lot of political theory has grappled with it. After all, it is the focus of much of The Federalist Papers. But we must also understand that in a society where wealth concentration, white supremacy, and patriarchy go hand in hand, periods of unrest increase the likelihood of political violence.
In the cases of Pernia and Trump, there is nothing to convince them that the election was lost. There are no verified results, and no empirical evidence, to quell this outrage. The rights that correspond to patriarchy and white supremacy are not subject to logic or fact. It is this relationship between power, control and violence that we must recognize.
The Republican Party, the MAGA movement, and a host of politicians, celebrities, liars, and dictators are all motivated by a desire to maintain or expand power. When people turn on Fox News or log on to their favorite right-wing website or social media platform, they are told that someone is trying to catch them. They are here for their property, their wealth and above all their power.
It’s a lucrative business with powerful political appeal. This new era, embodied and inspired by Trump and his cadre of cronies, has made it abundantly clear that bigoted narratives, conspiracy theories, and fear-mongering are the surefire way to fill people’s pockets and win. But when the counting results run counter to the expectations of the radical base, it is a veritable powder keg waiting for a spark.
“We must strengthen our democratic institutions and protect people who have been hit by authoritarian movements in the past.“
Unfortunately, this problem will only get worse if we continue to expect the fever to subside or one’s political fortunes to decline as a panacea. We must strengthen our democratic institutions and protect populations that have been hit by authoritarian movements in the past, including communities that have been enslaved, exploited, and subjected to horrific violence. These abuses only got worse over time when institutional opposition became evidently unwilling to mediate.
When an activist breaks into a home and beats a politician’s spouse with a hammer, it’s not enough to just shake your head. Wondering “Who would do something like that?” when a guy brings a semi-auto into a public place and commits a massacre out of fear of “white replacement”. As long as we don’t reinvest in our democracy, we can expect any of these atrocities to be the last. Because, like it or not, we’re all in this battle, and we can’t afford to lose.
Jared Yates Sexton is Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis and co-host of The Muckrake Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @JYSexton.