Today’s political polarization, the increasing acceptance of political violence, and the heated rhetoric used by everyone from the president down to our own Facebook friends could be kindling for violence after next week’s election, regardless of who wins.
Agitating the situation is President Donald Trump’s preemptive accusations, without evidence, of widespread voter fraud and his resistance to a peaceful transition should he lose, as well as fresh images of rioting at left-wing protests.
It’s not alarmist; it’s fact: People are on edge, and law-enforcement agencies, and even social media companies, are at the ready.
A JL Partners-Independent poll found that 72% of voters say they’re concerned about post-election violence. A YouGov survey says 56% of voters expect such unrest after Nov. 3. And a group of scholars who wrote an op-ed for Politico earlier this month said their research shows that about one in three Americans who identify as Democrat or Republican believe violence could be justified to advance their party’s political goals – a substantial increase over the last three years.
“We are increasingly anxious that this country is headed toward the worst post-election crisis in a century and a half,” they wrote.
Many law-enforcement agencies say they’ve been preparing for months for the possibility of violent demonstrations after the votes have been cast. They all note, however, that they have received no information about any specific threats.
The Department of Homeland Security says it will have agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection on standby.
"We have teams ready to go as needed," Ken Cuccinelli, DHS’ acting deputy secretary, told CNN.
That strategy comes with its own concerns. This summer, officials in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., said the presence there of federal agents only escalated protests calling for racial justice.
Meanwhile, the New York Police Department said it has retrained its officers on crowd control, the Los Angeles Police Department has called off vacations for its cops, and the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., has spent $130,000 on “less-lethal weapons” such as tear gas canisters and grenades, all in preparation of political violence.
"In law-enforcement circles, it is widely believed there will be civil unrest after the November election regardless of who wins," D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham told city officials of the purchase made in June.
And knowing their platforms could be used to help people with bad intentions coordinate, Facebook and Twitter are implementing stricter policies after the election.
Twitter says it will delete any tweets calling for violence. According to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook is prepared to, in dire circumstances, change its rules regarding what kind of content it considers dangerous and warrants removal. The social media giant also might act to slow the spread of certain posts as they begin to go viral and alter its news feed algorithm to change what content users see.
"There's going to be a wave of hate speech,” Viana Ferguson, a former Facebook content moderator, said during a panel discussion Monday hosted the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an outside watchdog group. “It's definitely going to be more violent. It's going to happen; it doesn't matter who wins. Facebook needs to be prepared for that."
Scholars and police agree the biggest concern is if Trump disputes the election results. The president, who has attacked mail-in voting, repeated a claim Monday that he has made for months: “The only way we can lose, in my opinion, is massive fraud.” Trump, who is trailing in the polls nationally and in key states, also has said he expects disputes over who won to be resolved by the Supreme Court, which added his third appointed justice, Amy Coney Barrett, on Monday night.
Political violence could come in many forms – clashes at street protests or property destruction are quick to come to mind. But in recent weeks, law enforcement agencies say they have disrupted alleged plots to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and to assassinate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris – a stark reminder of the extreme actions a small yet dangerous few might be considering.
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and one of the authors of the Politico op-ed, said Trump has been doing the exact opposite of what an elected leader should be doing to prevent unrest.
At his campaign rallies, the president has continued to attack Whitmer for her pandemic-related shutdowns despite the foiled plot to kidnap the Michigan governor as retaliation for those very measures. And instead of condemning the violent far-right group the Proud Boys at the first presidential debate, the president gave an ambiguous order — “stand back and stand by” — which the group’s members celebrated and took as an endorsement of their tactics.
Diamond also noted that Trump has the support of far-right militias and white supremacist groups, whom the Department of Homeland Security has described as the country’s gravest terror threat.
And the president has refused to condemn the QAnon conspiracy theory, which enthusiastically supports him and has been linked to several violent acts since 2018.
“It's not just Trump,” Diamond said. “There are a lot of actors on the right who are talking in this way and using this rhetoric of Second Amendment people and 'lock her up' and 'lock them up' and apocalyptic language about what's going to happen if they're not reelected and the only way they cannot be reelected is if the vote is stolen from them. This raises people's perception of the gravity of the situation to apocalyptic proportions, and then they feel they need to act."
But this is not strictly a right-wing problem. In fact, the NYPD and LAPD are reportedly more concerned about violence should Trump win reelection due to his unpopularity in the left-leaning cities.
And while largely peaceful, this year’s nationwide protests in response to the police-involved killings and shootings of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake included violent acts – looting, arson, shootings – that show what some liberals are capable of.
“We have radical activists on the left who either are part of a loose antifa network or find that perspective motivating in some way who are just angry as hell and ready to lash out,” Diamond said. “We see many people on the left who are kind of losing it and showing a readiness to engage in acts of violence against property and against people.
“But I think the propensity to actually go from rhetoric to violence against people, as opposed to property, is much greater on the right than the left,” he added.
Diamond said elected leaders should be speaking out loudly and forcefully to denounce any consideration of election violence.
Few, however, have.
One exception is Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who was on the losing end of the 2012 presidential election. Earlier this month, he called out members of both parties –including Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – and urged all Americans to tone down their rhetoric before it evolves into violence.
“The rabid attacks kindle the conspiracy mongers and the haters who take the small and predictable step from intemperate word to dangerous action,” Romney said. “The world is watching American with abject horror; more consequently, our children are watching. Many Americans are frightened for our country—so divided, so angry, so mean, so violent.”