Politically related violence and the threat of more of the same is on the rise in the United States. Concern over partisan street battles and the possibility of a new American civil war has been voiced by academics and experts who have studied the breakdown of societies in other countries. Hostile division and the bloody consequences are already evident. This is unlikely to disappear after the presidential election, regardless of the outcome.
All of this has been exacerbated by President Trump who has refused to commit to a peaceable transfer of power if he loses the election. This, coupled with his repeated statements that appear to condone violence on the part of his supporters and which have already inspired a number of criminal incidents, increases the possibility of deadly conflict. ABC News has identified 54 separate cases where perpetrators of violence or threats of violence have expressly evoked Trump’s name.
Extensive studies have shown the vast majority of political violence in the US in nearly thirty years –with the exception of the 9/11 terrorist attacks- has come from the right-wing, contrary to the repeated claims made by President Trump. Since 1994 right-wing terrorist attacks caused 335 deaths, left-wing attacks caused 22 deaths. Over all, bloody violence from those on the left has been relatively rare. In contrast, “Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020.”
However, recent studies suggest that a willingness to support political violence have increased on both the right and the left. Researchers have found, “Among Americans who identify as Democrat or Republican, 1 in 3 now believe that violence could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals—a substantial increase over the last three years. In September, 44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said there would be at least ‘a little’ justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election…. There has been an even larger increase in the share of both Democrats and Republicans who believe there would be either ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of justification for violence if their party were to lose in November.”
The upcoming turbulent election finds the country not only more viciously divided than at any time in over a hundred years, it is also more heavily armed than it has ever been. “FBI background checks – a direct indicator of gun sales – almost doubled year-on-year this summer, a reflection of the jitters that abound. As America arms itself, deadly weaponry is increasingly finding its way on to the streets, borne by self-styled private militias,” noted Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington. While guns are being purchased predominately by those on the right, those on the left are buying them as well.
In response to Trump’s call to carefully watch the polling places for voter fraud, armed intimidation and voter suppression is expected. There are tens of thousands of militia members who are loyal to Trump who could create a tremendously threatening situation. In the just cited article Devin Burghart, the director of the anti-bigotry organization the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights is quoted saying, “A number of [militia] groups have begun talking about mobilizations on election day and beyond. We’re hearing initial chatter about preparations for 3 November and we’re paying close attention.”
A growing number of both social commentators and historians have suggested that the time between the presidential election and the inauguration may prove to be the most dangerous period for the United States since the Civil War. It is very possible that the outcome of the election may not be know for days, perhaps even weeks, after the election day. Uncertainty creates instability. Some individuals who have fled countries internally disrupted by bloody violence have warned that what they see taking place in the U.S. is troublingly similar to what they saw happening in their own countries. Warning lights are flashing.
A significant increase in political violence is particularly likely if the results of the election is disputed and thrown into the courts. For weeks the President has been busy suggesting widespread voter fraud is inevitable. Given the likelihood that he will be defeated, there are numerous indications that Trump will seek to invalidate the results of the election. As Barton Gellman wrote recently in the Atlantic, “Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance.” Everything we know about Trump tells us this! But if he refuses to concede there will almost certainly be blood.
Appallingly, there are preachers and religious media figures who are pouring gasoline on the partisan flames by adding their voices to those of militias who are promoting a new civil war. As I have written about earlier, a number of evangelical leaders have issued bogus warnings that Christians in America will soon be persecuted. Echoing the ridiculous claims made by Trump that Democrats and those on the left are atheists and want to get rid of God, some among the religious right claim that the stakes are so high deadly force against their political enemies is necessary.
But followers of Jesus in fact must be committed to nonviolence, regardless of what others do. Jesus declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:7). In his own life he modelled what it means to be a peacemaker. Peacemaking in the way of Jesus is never a matter of meeting violence with violence, deadly force with deadly force. Rather, the priority of peaceableness must be maintained and the rejection of bloodshed must he held without qualification.
But this peaceableness is not a commitment to maintaining calm and quiet in the face of attacks on the integrity of elections, the subversion of democracy, and disregard for justice. Those who seek power at any cost deserve to be resisted. Those who willingly disregard the will of the people as expressed through free elections must be stopped. Democratically illegitimate rule should be fought with every nonviolent means possible. All attempts to allow the Supreme Court to determine the presidency –as Trump has already suggested might be done- should be resisted persistently and with unflinching determination. If necessary the streets need to be filled with protesters willing to disrupt the ordinary course of business day after day, week after week.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “Every true Christian is a fighting pacifist….Peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” With a commitment to the priority of peaceableness we must fight against the authoritarianism that erodes democracy and subverts majority rule while it preserves narrow ethno-nationalistic interests. In keeping with our peaceable priority we need to resist the temptation to demonize those we must oppose. But that should not lessen our willingness to fight for justice as we enter the most threat-filled and consequential election season in well over one hundred years. Blood may be shed. But may it never be by our hands.