The Threat of Political Violence in America
In 2022 there was a sharp escalation of politically motivated violence in the United States. There were numerous threats against government officials, both Republican and Democratic, at national and local levels. From June to September, a right-wing group planned to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. Then, in October, there was a heinous attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband, though Pelosi herself was the intended target. In the last few months of 2022, there were five separate shooting incidents directed against Democratic politicians and officials in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Several half-assed attempts at some ill-conceived violence were tried in Washington, D.C. There have been several state-level attacks against infrastructure, such as the power grid.
Most of these attacks receive news coverage for a day or two and then the media moves on to a new crisis. Frankly, we as a nation have become numb to violence. It is a daily occurrence in one shape or another. We only become excised over violence when it involves a mass shooting, especially of children. The "normal" daily dose of violence is unremarkable. But we should—and need—to pay attention to the growing level of political violence in this country.
The Shape of Political Violence in America
There has always been a degree of political violence in this country and we don't have to go too far back to find it. Those who were around during the 60s and 70s will recall how protests against the war in Viet Nam grew into violent resistance, The Weathermen group springs to mind. There was also violent resistance to social injustice by groups like The Black Panthers. The former numbered in the hundreds while the latter reached a high membership of approximately 2,000. These groups were viewed as a threat by the U.S. government and a significant amount of time, resources, and attention was devoted to stopping them. Eventually, these groups died due to infighting and divisions, the end of the Viet Nam War, and government action against these groups.
In some ways, today's violent extremist groups are similar to those of the past. There is no centralized command and control, leaving the actions of these groups disjointed. They are plagued by infighting and a multiplicity of motivations. They too advocate the overthrow of the government or at least a violent change in government. Yet, they are different in some very troubling ways. If we look at the totality of the groups today who plan to pursue a violent insurrection or would like to, they are much larger than those groups from the 60s. They tend to be better armed and better trained in their use. The earlier leftist groups lacked serious support from the population at large. Yes, in the 60s and 70s, many Americans wanted an end to the war, but they did not support the idea of a violent revolution, least of all to install a communist government, i.e. a Soviet Union-style government.
The most troubling aspect of today's groups advocating political violence is the level of support they have. A recent survey showed that eight percent of Americans believe the 2020 election was stolen and violence is justified to restore Trump to power. That translates to 21 million Americans. Of course, a majority of these 21 million people would not take up arms against the country, but insurgencies and terrorists don't require 21 million combatants. That is too large a number, unwieldy and insecure. What you do want is millions of people who support your aims, and who will provide supplies, safe havens, and intelligence. That is the concept of Mao Zedong, the guerrilla swimming in a sea of support.
Even more troubling is the level of support these groups have from media and political figures. People like Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Michael Flynn, and many more encourage their followers toward somewhat amorphous action, backed up by friendly media corporations. They suggest or hint at coups, and armed insurrection, which in turn provide the newly growing domestic terrorists with justification for their actions. We dismiss these figures at our peril. We might see them as fringe figures but they have sizable followings who listen to what these individuals say and are willing to take action.
Further troubling is the number of political figures who stoke the flames, crying foul over election losses, feeding the grievances of the potentially violent groups, and calling for action against the government which, ironically, they represent. All these individuals are inflaming rage and hatred for their own personal gains. There is significant money and power to be had, but they are creating a monster that they will not be able to control.
Fortunately, as I noted above, these groups are not united, not under one centralized command. This makes it difficult to organize an effective insurrection, or whatever we want to call it. These groups are capable of low-level, isolated attacks against individuals and poorly guarded infrastructure. They are a nuisance to the nation as a whole, frightening to the individuals they target, but not a serious threat to the nation's stability, not yet.
If I were tasked by my former employer to undertake a covert action program to overthrow a government in similar circumstances to what the U.S. government finds itself today, using the current violence prone groups, I would say it couldn't be done. There is no real possibility of success. However, if I were tasked with generating a degree of chaos, political pressure, and destabilization in order to make the U.S. focus its attention inward rather than outward, then I would say it could be done. There is enough raw material in the U.S. to generate greater levels of political violence and turmoil.
All that is required to turn the extreme right into a serious threat to the stability of this nation is leadership. There are enough people willing to turn to violence. There are enough weapons available in this country and individuals with military experience to train and lead insurrectionists. There is enough money, both inside the U.S. and outside, to support these groups. There are enough sympathizers in the media, local, state, and federal government, as well as law enforcement and the military to provide intelligence, equipment, and other types of support. All it requires is leadership to forge the disparate groups into one and follow a strategy to bring about the totalitarian nightmare they dream of.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Cubans were active in supporting various "liberation" groups in Latin America and Africa. In Central America, several countries had multiple insurgent groups fighting to install communist regimes, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. The Cubans had a simple formula for providing support. They would tell the various organizations to fight on without Cuban support. If, after an appropriate time period set by the Cubans, the organizations were still fighting and viable on their own, the Cubans would support them. This ensured that Cuba did not waste valuable and scarce resources on groups that lacked the ability to succeed. Then the Cubans would dictate that the various groups form an umbrella organization to determine and guide strategy, and political and military goals, to act as the political party representing the various groups to the outside world, and to handle propaganda. If the groups agreed to come under the umbrella organization and follow its direction, the Cubans would support those groups. If they did not, they would receive no assistance from Cuba and wither.
Let us hope this does not happen here. Let us hope that the appropriate elements in our federal and state governments take the threat seriously, work toward penetrating and dismantling these groups and prevent them from unifying. Otherwise, as histort has shown us, the next several years will be very painful.