US elections: Sharp political divide raises spectre of violence

Political partisan attacks are fierce ahead of the November elections, and the risk of violence is high. The latest assassination attempt on Trump is a grim snapshot of what could be coming.

Donald Trump was hit in the ear in an apparent assassination attempt by a gunman at a campaign rally on Saturday, July 13, 2024.
Rebecca DROKE / AFP
Donald Trump was hit in the ear in an apparent assassination attempt by a gunman at a campaign rally on Saturday, July 13, 2024.

US elections: Sharp political divide raises spectre of violence

In what was reported to be an assassination attempt, Donald Trump was slightly injured on Saturday when a gunman identified as Thomas Matthew Crooks, aged 20, from Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, attacked him during a campaign rally.

The bullet grazed his right ear, and several people were injured; the gunman and another person were killed during the chaos that ensued.

Before Trump was escorted to safety by the US Secret Service, he defiantly raised his fist to the camera, his face visibly covered in blood.

Could this incident stoke further violence ahead of the election? Even before the assassination attempt on Saturday, many have postulated that this election is one of the most divisive and polarising in US history and that the spectre of violence erupting was very real.

On Twitter, J.D. Vance, who many believe could be named as Trump's running mate, indirectly blamed Biden's campaign rhetoric for the assassination attempt.

On 2 June, in an interview with FOX News, former President Donald Trump warned violence could erupt if he is sentenced to prison for business fraud. Trump blasted the judicial process, and his Republican allies joined him in accusing the Biden administration of using the courts as a weapon against opponents.

“At a certain point, there’s a breaking point,” Trump warned.

Certainly, many of Trump’s supporters adore him. The day after his conviction in the New York court, financial donations to his presidential election campaign doubled. Laura Loomer, a hardline conservative commentator who has nearly a million followers on Twitter X, reacted to Trump’s conviction by demanding that Democratic Party leaders be executed as soon as Trump wins the November election.

For her part, congresswoman Majorie Greene from Georgia compared Trump to Jesus Christ, saying that political authorities convicted both on false charges. Even after his conviction, over 40% of Americans told opinion surveys that he still qualifies to be president. The judge in the New York court could sentence him to up to four years in prison for business fraud at the 11 July hearing of the court.

Threat of violence

Beyond Trump’s threat of violence if he goes to prison, he also refuses to respect the election result no matter who wins. He told Time magazine in April that he can only lose if the election process itself is fraudulent. He warned at a political rally in Michigan in March that there will be a “blood bath” on the streets if he loses. Trump himself often calls the people in prison for the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol building “hostages”.

Never has an American presidential candidate implicitly threatened violence if he goes to prison or loses an election, but many experts warn that the risk of more political violence is real. An opinion survey from the PBS news network and the Maris organisation in March indicated that 20% of those surveyed said using violence may be necessary to restore America to the correct path; 28% of the Republicans in the survey agreed with using violence.

Juliette Kayyem, who was an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security in President Obama’s administration, told CNN in April that Trump and his campaign team have consistently threatened violence.

However, the American government is unprepared for another insurrection, like what happened on 6 January 2021. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project ACLED, which monitors political violence around the world, in January warned that right-wing militias in America would use the election to recruit and mobilise new members. According to the report, claims in 2024 of new election fraud could mobilise extremists, especially in the states of Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, that both candidates need to win in order to capture the Oval Office. A Bloomberg News opinion survey in May said that half of the voters in these three states and four other vital election states worry about violence after the election results are announced.

Polls indicating a significant number of Americans would use political violence are not new; in recent years, other polls also showed that 10% to 30% of Americans say they would accept using violence to fix an American domestic political crisis. What is different now is that the number of right-wing militant groups has grown substantially.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre, which has tracked hate and white supremacist groups for decades, earlier this month reported that the number of these groups more than doubled since 2021 to reach 1,400 groups across the country. The proliferation of extremist groups is especially important since Republican Party attacks on the judicial system have helped undermine the legitimacy of the courts and encourage more Americans to try to solve disputes with violence.

Meanwhile, conservative circles in the US warn that extremist leftist groups are the main threat of political violence. Brooke Rollins, the President of the America First Policy Institute— whose members include many former officials from Trump’s administration—wrote in American Mind magazine in May that the Gaza protests at American universities were only the latest example of leftist intimidation.

Read more: Universities get tough on students after students get tough on Israel

She said that leftist violence always arrives in an election year and seeks to create chaos and an eventual insurrection. She rejected the idea that rightists are the danger, saying that no business had ever had to close because of fear of a Republican Party job. Her accusation closely resembles those of Democrats who warn that the Republican Party constitutes a threat to American democracy.

Worsening polarisation

According to a public opinion survey from YouGov in late March and early April, hostility between supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties has increased in the past year. The organisation’s poll in spring 2023 showed that 69% of Democratic Party members had an unfavourable opinion of the Republican Party but, a year later, reached 85%. Similarly, its poll in 2023 showed that 74% of Republicans had an unfavourable perception of Democrats, and by 2024, that share had grown to 88%.

Fierce competition is typical in American politics, but the language is especially extreme now. And the attacks now target the opponent’s personality as much as policy differences. Donald Trump has never used moderate political language, but in May, he claimed that Biden is crooked and “dumb like a rock.” Trump has criticised Biden for his age and stuttering—a condition Biden has had since childhood but has largely overcome.

For their part, Trump’s political allies are similarly extreme in their attacks on the Democratic Party. Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson from the state of Louisiana told the National Republican Lawyers Association in June that the Democratic Party disdains the fundamental principles of American government and society, and its left-wing and radicals want to create a “Marxist, European-style socialist utopia” that would destroy American democracy.

And while French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz would probably reject the assertion that France and Germany are Marxist states, Republican Party lawyers enthusiastically applauded Johnson’s speech.

President Biden and the Democrats are hitting Trump hard, too. Kamala Harris, in early June, at a political rally in Michigan, called Trump a cheater who was unhappy that he got caught. And while it is typical for a vice-presidential candidate to be especially critical of the opposing side in a presidential election so that the president can focus on his vision for America’s future, Biden broke that tradition this year. At a fundraising event in Connecticut in early June, Biden highlighted that Trump is the first convicted felon to run for President and is “reckless” for attacking the judicial system. Biden also claimed that Trump had a psychological collapse after he lost the 2020 election and is now dangerous.

Partisan political identity

These constant reciprocal attacks turn many Americans away from the election process, but the attacks also reflect the deep disagreements among the American people about the country’s future. A June opinion survey from the Pew organisation showed wide gaps between Democrats and Republicans but also big differences between young and old, between those highly educated and those less so, and between Americans of different races about issues ranging from the proper role of religion and government to the issue of legal abortion to the role of guns in society to racial relations and immigration.

For example, the survey showed that 63% of Trump supporters want a national government policy to expel immigrants who don't have proper government approval by force. Only 15% of Biden supporters agree with the idea of expulsion. Instead, 85% of Biden’s supporters believe immigrants without proper documentation should be allowed to stay in the United States, and 56% believe they should be allowed to become citizens. Each side thinks the other is exploiting the illegal immigration issue politically.

Supporters of 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump hold a sign about the border wall with Mexico before Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Club 47 USA in West Palm Beach, Florida, on October 11, 2023.

The same worry applies to the issue of abortion—especially among women supporters of the Democratic Party. The survey showed that 88% of Biden’s supporters and 62% of the American public in total want access to abortion in America. However, only 31% of Trump voters support even limited legal abortion availability.

Both political parties have moved to exploit these social divisions. President Biden’s campaign is showing a television advertisement of a middle-class mother and her daughter fleeing the police in a Republican Party-controlled state as they reach a neighbouring Democratic Party-controlled state to get an abortion for the daughter’s unwanted pregnancy. The advertisement aims to stoke fear and mobilise women to vote for Democrats.

Republican Party advertisements highlight the “invasion” of illegal immigrants. The parties are themselves now representing cultural divisions. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who just published a book about American political troubles in the 1960s and 1970s, told CNN in early June that Americans are now divided not by issues but by political-cultural identities. She recalled that George Washington himself warned in 1796 that this kind of political tribalism would threaten American stability. The political posturing, opportunism and rhetoric in America now often remind me of the competition between Algeria’s Islamist and secular politicians in 1989-1993.

Avoiding a new civil war

Two opinion surveys in April and May indicated that over 40% of Americans think a new civil war is coming. Historian Anne Cox Richardson told PBS network last October that the United States is “on the edge of a knife.” However, it is important to note that the two opinion surveys immediately followed the opening of a new Hollywood movie about a civil war in America.

Read more: New film warns Americans civil war can come

In addition, larger shares of the two surveys’ respondents discounted the likelihood of a civil war. Moreover, some analysts think America is not so close to the knife’s edge. Richardson herself believes a new civil war is not inevitable. Dartmouth University professor Sean Westwood’s studies suggest that many Americans may tell an opinion survey they support violence, but deeper questions indicate they refuse to undertake violent acts themselves.

It is also worth noting that younger Americans are less polarised around the two big American political parties. Political scientists Sally Friedman and David Schulz highlight their research that there is more consensus among Americans born after 1982 concerning social issues. The June Pew Research opinion polling reinforces this point: it showed that younger Republicans are closer than older Republicans to Democratic views on sensitive issues like immigration and abortion.

Friedman and Schulz predict polarisation in the United States may diminish as these newer generations gain more political power in the coming decades. In the near future, however, the November election race between Biden and Trump is very close, political partisan attacks are fierce, and the risks of local incidents of political violence are high, beginning with Trump's possible sentence to prison on 11 July.

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