Third in a special series, Midterm Alerts
[The following contains violent content. Voter discretion is sincerely invited.]
The deadly assault on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — second in the line of succession to the presidency — raises the level of dread all around in these already-fraught midterm elections.
One by one, death threats are made against political figures, are reported in the media. Yet with this stunning assault on Mr. Pelosi, by hammer in their home, with the alleged assailant making clear his intent — “Where is Nancy?” — the data snap into sharpest relief: In the 5-year period 2016–2021, death threats targeting political figures have increased tenfold — repeat: tenfold. The number of threats in 2021 alone was 9,625 — repeat: 9,625.
Why is this five-year period significant? Because it denotes the ascent of Donald Trump, whose presidency knocked out too many guardrails of American democracy. Professing to “make America great again,” instead Trump has invoked our culture’s darkest and most violent strains, such that armed MAGA “patriots” now “guard” ballot drop-boxes and, yes, target political figures with — let’s be real here — assassination.
Had Speaker Pelosi been assassinated — recall the January 6 MAGA insurrectionists explicitly targeted Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence; Pelosi has long been vilified by Republicans; and (again) Pelosi is second in line to the presidency — the effect in today’s tinderbox would be….unthinkable. But: Enough with dread, we must think about implications, consequences. Political assassination is its own order of crime, having an avalanche’s destabilizing impact on a society, with calls for revenge, spiraling chaos, desperation, despair.
To the question, then: Will there be blood? There already has been: Speaker Pelosi’s husband’s blood. Do we actually need an actual assassination before we learn the necessary lesson— that America is already far-gone down the path of political violence — and take appropriate action? (I can hardly believe I am writing about America the Beautiful….)
Two actions can be taken — now — to fend off such a calamity as assassination, while also lowering the political temperature and general volatility. Because: No way can political violence become “normal” — or American Democracy is well and truly done. “One of the marks of the end of a republic,” declares historian Jon Meacham, “is the normalization of political violence.” These two rescue actions are:
- ONE: President Biden could put the National Guard on alert.
To date, the White House has issued internal alerts to the law enforcement apparatus, warning of the “potential” for political violence around the coming midterms. Mr. Biden has also condemned the “extremist” MAGA threat (his recent Philadelphia speech) and, now, he condemns the “despicable” assault on Speaker Pelosi’s husband.
But: Presidential rhetoric and bureaucratic “action” are too discrete. In the perception of the public — that part of the American public still sane and not unhinged by MAGA-fever — there is a terrible sense of drift, inexorable drift, that’s built up for months now and seems about to carry us all over the falls. How so? Because as more death threats occur, still nothing — so far as the public knows— is done about them, other than another report is filed internally or perhaps a lawsuit is brought somewhere. Nor is it enough to expect political figures to provide for their own security. More is needed — of a public and pro-actively protective nature.
A President’s paramount duty is to protect the American people. The U.S. Constitution vests the President with the requisite power, in Article IV, Section 4: in brief, to protect “every State in this Union” both “against Invasion” and “against domestic Violence.” Left unclear by the Founders is how exactly this mechanism works: There is language of state legislatures “applying” and “convening,” which, most legislatures being Republican-controlled currently, they could refuse. Nevertheless, the presidential duty remains: to protect the American people “against domestic Violence.”
To provide this domestic protection, the National Guard is the appropriate instrument. Proportionate to this moment of drift toward violence, and rather than mobilizing the Guard, Mr. Biden could announce he is putting the Guard “on alert” — action that would do much to allay a n-n-nervous public’s unease and possibly deter imminent MAGA violence. Thus far the federal government has done nothing — again, apparently — to stay the hand of MAGA crazies; putting the National Guard on alert just might. Likely flashpoint this midterm: An election-denying GOP candidate denying his/her loss, sparking….whatever.
Republicans will cast “on alert” as mobilization of the Guard, just as they accused Mr. Biden of calling them “fascists” in his Philadelphia speech (he didn’t). But Republicans, whose midterm theme is crime (also inflation), can be countered with appeals to prevent violence. This is not naïvete, but savvy co-opting: Hoist crime-abiding Republicans on their own anti-crime banner. Despite Virginia GOP governor Glenn Youngkin’s tasteless crack about Ms. Pelosi’s husband — “There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re gonna send her back to be with him in California” — initially there was bipartisan accord that the Pelosi attack is beyond the pale. But already Republicans’ sick twist to this horrific event circulates (I won’t give it oxygen by describing it).
- TWO: Voters can decide to reject MAGA extremists and vote Democratic.
This action is simpler and nearer. Voters — especially Independents whom polls showed favoring Republicans in these midterms — can now conduct a rethink, a comprehensive rethink. To wit: “Do I really want to support a party taken over by extremists who are fine with violence? If I have any power to get us back to normal — and, hey, I do: the vote! — I will use it.” Yes, crime and inflation are important, as Republicans claim — but so is saving American democracy. Besides, voters understand high gas prices are temporary, often manipulated, thus should not drive their precious vote. As recently as August, “threats to democracy” polled as campaign issue №1. What changed that priority, except savvy GOP campaign-speak and oceans of GOP money poured into every GOP campaign?
Now History itself may alter that priority. Campaign cycles often have an “October surprise” and the Pelosi near-assassination is this one. Rather than absorb this shock as normal — the media universally characterized the Pelosi assault as “shocking” to the nation, a nation nearly catatonic with shock already — we can instead use this shock to rethink, repair, any re-word connoting a second chance. Voters can take this interval between now and Nov. 8 to connect the dots — finally. For one, between Republicans’ violent rhetoric and violent eventuality. How many ads have we seen featuring GOP candidates pulling out a firearm to shoot away imagined Democratic error? (See: the violence-fueled ad of rising GOP star Kari Lake, running for Arizona governor.) And Republicans’ long-time demonizing of Nancy Pelosi. Readers appreciated a point I made earlier: “Understand the consequences of what you believe, own the lethal through-line of cause-and-effect.”
Voters can play a historic role here: by pulling America back from the abyss and toward true normalcy — where violence is again taboo. Why “historic”? Because great nations, once they begin their decline, have never, as History shows, been able to reverse it. See: Rome, Greece, Persia. America still can — but only if we are truly conscious of our peril.
Am I politicizing this moment, by calling for the National Guard to be put on alert and urging the voters to be ultra-alert, too? Of course I am. But this moment is profoundly political, and profoundly perilous: Not only are we in a campaign season, but national collapse feels imminent. I am done with inexorable drift into Chaos. Action, please.
Not incidentally: President Biden putting the National Guard on alert would put the entire law enforcement apparatus itself on alert. There are too many reports of agents of the law sympathizing with or even becoming infected with MAGA-fever, even participating in the January 6 MAGA insurrection: These include members of the FBI, Secret Service, members of the local police, also military veterans. (Rogue ex-general Michael Flynn is now seeking to recruit “thousands of police officers” for “one more mission,” as poll monitors.) Time then for mission review among law enforcement itself: Just whose law does law enforcement enforce? Where do sympathies lie? Who exactly, in crunch-time, would they protect?
It will also help if Democrats step up to volunteer as election workers, to replace the hordes leaving because of all the MAGA death threats and to offset the MAGA “patriots” promising to “monitor” Election Day. (Again I can hardly believe I am writing about America the Beautiful….) And: It would help — help? It’s vital — that Mr. Biden ensure election workers’ safety against intimidation and go public about it. A President’s duty to protect includes those workers who actually operate our democracy’s levers: by counting votes. (CNN reports of election workers’ “fury” at the lack of federal protection.)
Tellingly, it’s former Republicans who are most outspoken about their former party’s cultivation of, or even “celebration” of violence, as The Atlantic’s David Frum puts it. (Example: Trump advisor Roger Stone saying, “F*ck the voting. Let’s get right to the violence.”) Peter Wehner of The Atlantic laments how “unhinged” his GOP has become, especially after the FBI search of Trump’s Florida home. (Post-search, Twitter posts calling for civil war jumped 3,000%.) Max Boot of The Washington Post cautions against both-siderism: “Don’t blame both sides. The right is driving political violence.” To be fair, the far-left also commits violence, though infinitely less often. Recall the shooter who seriously wounded Representative Steve Scalise in a Congressional GOP baseball practice and the gunman who staked out conservative Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home.
In all this, I cannot shake three insights from previous reading. One, from Cambridge classics scholar Mary Beard: that once political violence — specifically, assassination of political opponents — became normalized, an acceptable political tool, as it did after Julius Caesar’s assassination, the Roman empire was well and truly done. Two, from Nobel poet Wislawa Szymborska on the supremely difficult task of restoring normalcy: “Since when does brotherhood draw crowds?…. / Only hatred has just what it takes.” And three, from Goethe’s epic poem “Faust” (which I reviewed when Republicans first entered into their Faustian bargain with Trump), my takeaway: Avoid sliding into the Chaos of violence in the first place — but, once into it, reverse it however you can.
To reversing America’s slide, dammit!
For my previous midterm alerts, see here.