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The attack on Paul Pelosi was shocking — and yet also predictable

Rising political violence is not surprising when people are told they face existential threats.
Image: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul, arrive at the White House in 2010.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul, arrive at the White House in 2010.Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images file

“We fight like hell,” then-President Donald Trump told supporters Jan. 6, 2021. “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Recent warnings of political violence during the upcoming midterm elections look more prescient by the day. On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, was assaulted in a targeted attack. (The suspect reportedly shouted, "Where's Nancy?" before striking Paul Pelosi with a hammer.) Meanwhile, armed men watch ballot drop boxes, election offices install bulletproof glass and poll workers undergo active-shooter trainings. To face this peril, it is essential to understand how people can be moved from partisan hostility to outright violence.

Trump’s fateful speech — which directly preceded the breach of the U.S. Capitol — shows how demagogues can get people into this different state of mind. Much ink has been spilled in recent years worrying whether increasing polarization in the United States is to blame for increased likelihood of political violence. But that view misses the mark. Trump and his followers engage in something wholly different from polarization: survivalism.

it is essential to understand how people can be moved from partisan hostility to outright violence.

Autocrats and those who wish to join their ranks know that polarization is rarely enough to get people to commit unprecedented acts. To encourage political violence and exceptional measures — harming Pelosi or Capitol rioters chanting that they wanted to hang then-Vice President Mike Pence — you need to get people to feel like they are facing an existential threat. Survivalism goes beyond the "us or them in power" of polarization to a state of "it's us or them, and only one of us will survive the encounter." Its extreme rhetoric deliberately evokes fear and dread at losing something irreplaceable, at the obliteration of America.

Yes, polarization is on the rise around the world, thanks to disaffection with liberal democracy, rising economic inequality and social media’s exposure of billions to disinformation. But when illiberal politicians and their media allies move to destroy democracy, the creation of enemies and the fomenting of hostility enter a different phase. Political opponents are depicted as existential threats who must be stopped by any means possible.

One typical move, as practiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other authoritarians, is to designate pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations, investigative journalists and opposition politicians as "terrorists.” Another is to demonize those who hold different opinions about politics. With polarization, you move further apart but can still "agree to disagree." That's not an option in the survivalist universe. A political opponent becomes an enemy who threatens your freedoms and way of life. As dialogue disappears, violence becomes more likely.

In the U.S., Jan. 6 further radicalized the Republican Party and broke taboos about the use of violence against police and lawmakers. Trump's speech was part of a concerted effort to make armed insurrection seem not just acceptable, but also patriotic — a way to save the country from the massive fraud he claimed without evidence was perpetrated by Joe Biden. The propaganda worked: A survey by the American Enterprise Institute conducted a month after the attack on the Capitol found that 39% of Republicans agreed that "if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions."

Keeping people in a state of fear and agitation about losing everything is essential to strongman strategy.

Survivalism is also central to many Republican messaging campaigns around immigration and the dire consequences of demographic change. The "great replacement" conspiracy theory, which holds that white people will be extinguished in terms of birth and status in a minority-majority state, is now a mainstream belief among Republican lawmakers and media figures. Tucker Carlson, host of Fox News’ highest-rated show, has featured it in more than 400 episodes.

Survivalist fears related to population trends also motivate prominent Republicans. Conservative Political Action Conference Chairman Matt Schlapp, while hosting a conference that had a keynote address by Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán, hailed the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade as a solution to America’s “population problem” — the argument being that abortion bans mean more white births. Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., called the same ruling “a historic victory for white life.”

That "us or them" mindset can encourage actions like the May 14 mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, in which a white gunman who fatally shot 10 Black people intended to kill as many of “them” as possible. Similar motivations were cited in mass shootings in Pittsburgh in 2018 and El Paso, Texas, in 2019 (as well as shootings in Norway and New Zealand).

Polarization may earn headlines, but it does not in itself prompt a turn to action. An NBC News poll that tells us “70% agree with the statement that America is so polarized that it can no longer solve major issues facing the country" stops short of spelling out what may come next.

Keeping people in a state of fear and agitation about losing everything is essential to strongman strategy. It prepares the masses to accept violence as a means of solving problems — from elections that don't go well for their party to living with a changing democratic reality. Where survivalism takes root, political violence can follow.