Political Violence is a Right Wing Problem
Conservatives deny culpability while they enable and reward thuggery.
On Saturday, a white supremacist murdered three Black people at a Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida,* using an AR-15-style rifle with swastikas on it. The crime is being described as “racially motivated,” which although technically accurate feels more than a little bit euphemistic. The murderer was an avowed, vicious racist, who left behind rantings that spell out in revolting detail exactly what he believed and why he wanted to kill for it. There is no mystery here as to why this happened. And there’s no mystery as to how: Like so many mass killers in the US, this man was able to easily get his hands on a weapon designed for mass murder.
Political violence is not a uniquely American problem, nor is it limited to a particular ideology. There is a rich history of leftwing violence as well as rightwing violence. But in the US, in this century, political violence is not a “both sides” conundrum; in the US, in this century, political violence is overwhelmingly a right-wing problem. Instead of grappling with that reality, though, the American right — including the Republican Party — denies culpability, while making it easier for violent extremists to enact maximal damage. And too often, they encourage and reward right-wing violence, and the racism and misogyny that motivate it.
The people killed in Jacksonville were Angela Michelle Carr, 52; Jerrald Gallion, 29; and Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19. Carr was a mother, beloved by her family, and described as endlessly generous. Gallion was the devoted father of a four-year-old girl, and family and friends described his humor, his work ethic, and his devotion to both his church and his daughter. Laguerre worked at the store, and was just a kid — his whole life was out in front of him. I’m sure in the coming days, we’ll learn more about all three of these people whose futures were stolen. I hope we commit their names to memory, while the man who killed them finds that his fades into obscurity.
In a press conference following the shooting, Sheriff T. K. Waters told viewers that “there is absolutely no evidence that the shooter is part of any large group.” This is both true and not. The shooter may not be a part of a formal organization of individuals that pose an immediate threat of continuing his actions, like the KKK. But he is absolutely part of a larger group.
On Twitter, Jeff Sharlet wrote that, having studied the writings of white supremacist killers for the last decade-plus, “these killers see themselves more like a chain letter than lone wolves.” He continued:
Oftentimes they lift whole sections of previous manifestoes, comment on previous killers’ tactics, express hope that their own crimes will carry forward what they see as a war. They find support online. They are the very opposite of lone wolves. This is the slow civil war. It’s worth noting that the anti-Black manifestoes are also rife with linked violent misogyny, antisemitism, usually anti-immigrant, & think with expressions of the very fear of “decadence” that are a staple of the GOP. This is the awful “intersectionality” of fascism.
In the Atlantic, Juliette Kayyem expands on this theme:
Right-wing violence is done by individuals, but they are organizing and learning from an online apparatus as well as the actions of previous like-minded killers. Mass killings from the past, in New Zealand or Norway or South Carolina, are studied and replicated, each feeding off the others. Like foreign terror groups, these men seek to use violence as a way to attract attention to their cause. “The culture of martyrdom and insurgency within groups like the Taliban and ISIS is something to admire and reproduce in the neo-Nazi terror movement,” a 2019 online poster advocated on a neo-Nazi site. These killings are done to amplify that movement’s perverse narrative of America—that white people are still in charge and that many of them are willing to kill to prove it, and they do so publicly to terrorize.
Political violence in the US is at a 50-year high, and while this is often blamed on “extremism” or “polarization,” there’s really only one pole and one extreme committing most violent acts: the right. This Reuters piece, for example, takes more than 40 paragraphs on political violence to get to the point that nearly all of this violence is committed by conservatives. And the numbers are pretty damning:
Most of the fatal political violence identified by Reuters was carried out by people who embraced far-right views.
There have been a total 18 deadly political attacks since the Capitol riot, killing 39 people and eight perpetrators, Reuters found.
In 13 of the incidents, accounting for 34 deaths, the perpetrators or suspects articulated clear right-wing motives or views. Another four people died in four incidents that were political, but not tied to partisan U.S. politics. These include a May 2022 shooting in which police said a suspect, enraged by China-Taiwan political tensions, opened fire at a Taiwanese church in California, killing one worshiper and injuring five.
Go back a few more years and the difference is even more pronounced. Right-wing violence skyrocketed in 2016, as Donald Trump was running for president, and has remained shockingly high. Here’s a useful graphic from the Carnegie Endowment:
Those environmental terrorists of the early 2000s, by the way, were not killing people. Right-wing extremists, including white supremacists and abortion opponents, kill often.
Another big difference is that even the Republican Party lets the terrorists win and institutionalizes their tactics in a way that Democrats simply do not.