Risk of Election-Related Violence Remains, Here’s What Could Reduce It

Six weeks after the election, the United States still faces an elevated risk of political violence despite the Electoral College certifying the result and the courts upholding it against dozens of false claims of fraud. Before the election, I developed an analytic framework to monitor the threat of post-election violence, and the situation has worsened across nearly every indicator since my initial assessment.

The risk is the highest it has been in many decades because a sizable minority still wrongly believe the election was stolen, President Donald Trump and fringe media outlets are reinforcing these falsehoods, and those who believe them are increasingly adopting far-right extremists’ violent rhetoric and tactics. Under these circumstances, we will likely see additional post-election violence in the form of direct attacks on public figures or symbols and street violence initiated by gatherings of violent extremists who support Trump. Episodic violence of this kind could also spur broader conflict involving more organized armed groups, particularly since incidents of far-right violence often lead to a surge in similar activity. Widespread civil conflict is unlikely without substantial escalation and a major triggering event, thanks largely to the decisive election outcome and sound performance of U.S. governing institutions.

The election-related violence analytic framework evaluated the risk by considering indicators in five categories: political leader responses, perceptions of electoral and judicial legitimacy, armed actor use of force, public sentiment and media, and external influences. Let’s look first at what the indicators reveal about the current situation and then turn to ideas that could reduce the risk of violence.

Political leader responses: Trump spreading false claims and refusing to concede is the most important driver that increases the risk that his supporters turn to violence.

The president’s recent White House meeting with Powell and Flynn is another example of his authoritarian disregard for U.S. institutions. We should not ignore these overt efforts to remain in power, but the most important implication of the meeting is likely to be the signal it sends to extremists who listen to Powell and Flynn that the only remaining options to back the president require violence. Taken together, increasing Republican acceptance of the outcome and Biden’s outreach to Trump voters probably reduce the risk of a broader civil conflict but do little to dissuade domestic extremists from violence. Despite recent changes in tone among some Republican leaders, their support for debunked conspiracy theories in the weeks prior undermined trust in democratic institutions and contributed to radicalization that will be difficult to turn back.

Perceptions of electoral and judicial legitimacy: A sizable minority of the U.S. population doubts the election results despite consistent facts to the contrary, and a vocal subset of this group is using increasingly violent messaging and actions as the legal options to challenge the outcome have failed for lack of merit. U.S. electoral and judicial institutions fulfilled their duties despite unprecedented political pressure and an out-of-control pandemic. Election processes did not break down, margins of victory were clear enough to avoid difficult court decisions that would sway outcomes, and foreign interference efforts appear to have had little success. These institutional successes shaped positive perceptions of election legitimacy among most voters and were essential to avoiding some of the worst-case scenarios that could have quickly triggered mass political violence.

Armed actor use of force: The number and type of instances in which State and non-State actors resort to violence will indicate the likelihood of escalation in the weeks to come. Episodes of limited post-election violence have already occurred, including last weekend in Washington, D.C. and Olympia, Washington, as Trump’s supporters gathered. Threats of targeted violence against elected officials, judges, and others associated with the election are increasing and have prompted legislatures to close and electors to gather at undisclosed locations. Federal, state, and local security forces have faced criticism for their relatively limited response to far-right protests, property destruction, and violence, especially in contrast to their heavy-handed responses to largely non-violent Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year. However, security force crackdowns on nascent anti-government movements have historically been linked to rapid escalation in these groups’ violent behavior across contexts.

Public sentiment and media: Pre-election divisions between partisans, popular narratives, media, and influencers have deepened. While the majority recognize a shared set of facts about the outcome and validity of the election, roughly a quarter of the U.S. population holds a diametrically opposite view. Because of the highly polarized and fragmented political, cultural, and media environment in the United States, those in the latter group interact with communities and media sources that reinforce their belief in falsehoods. As these narratives have been disproven in official channels, the president’s ardent supporters seem to view increasingly radical and violent actions as their only remaining options.

External influences: Foreign actors and wildcard events have played a relatively minimal role in shaping the risk of election-related violence in the United States. Near unanimous foreign recognition of the election outcome, including recently from previous holdouts such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, will have little impact on those most likely to use violence in the United States. A global pandemic marked by a disastrous government response and disproportionate U.S. consequences arguably contributed to a higher baseline risk because of anti-government sentiment on the right over masks and other public health measures. There is overlap in those spreading misinformation and calling for violence over COVID-related policies and false election fraud claims.

De-escalating and Countering Extremism

Preventing more election-related violence in the United States requires immediate steps and long-term commitment that combines proactive and reactive measures. Urgent and largely defensive action can reduce the likelihood that violent extremists will be successful, but without ambitious efforts to address the complex mix of drivers that contribute to radicalization, the problem will fester. Most Americans stand behind U.S. democratic institutions and do not support political violence. The U.S. must build on these majority views without ignoring the disproportionate danger that a radicalized minority could pose to its stability and progress.

The United States should draw lessons about preventing and countering violent extremism at home from the growing body of evidence and research that has been informed by the overwhelming focus on confronting extremism abroad over the last two decades. One of the most important lessons is that accountability and reconciliation must be pursued together from the start, and careful attention must be paid to maintaining the appropriate balance between imperatives that are challenging to reconcile. This is difficult and imprecise work that needs routine evaluation and adjustment. But the price of failure is investing exclusively in one element only to see it fail, forcing investment in the other after absorbing a huge toll in lost lives, time, and countless other resources. The below are initial ideas that aim to integrate accountability and reconciliation.

  • Republicans at every level should clearly and repeatedly affirm that the election produced a clear and fair outcome – even if it was not their preferred outcome – and that violent political rhetoric and action is always unacceptable. Party leaders and voters should use their networks to correct false narratives that are driving extremism and will undermine their political goals, such as retaining control of the Senate. Republican officials helped spread misinformation and failing to stop it will make them responsible for any future violence.
  • Local, state, and federal security forces should take a victim-focused approach to rapidly improve security for those most likely to be targeted: minority communities, Democratic elected officials, and others associated with the election or subsequent decisions, including election administrators and judges.
  • We all should be monitoring for and investigating signs of far-right extremist views and activity. Families, communities, civil society and professional organizations, and security forces should work collaboratively to identify and intervene early with those who may resort to violence.
  • Every White person has a special responsibility to acknowledge the inextricable links between racism, heterosexual white supremacy, and far-right violent extremism and then take action to address them. Victims of these atrocities have for too long borne the brunt of efforts to fight them. Those of us who have not must listen, learn, and take responsibility for convincing other White people that racism cannot coexist with adherence to U.S. values and that it harms all of us.
  • Social media companies should take additional steps to break down the built-in incentives to spread false and inflammatory information that tends to generate quick likes and other forms of elevation. They must go beyond labeling false claims and find ways to stop those who repeatedly gain attention from sharing lies and provocations.
  • Traditional and social media entities should also take a different approach to President Trump when he leaves office. For the traditional media this should mean sharply reducing coverage to limit spreading false claims just because he pushes them. For social media it should mean applying the rules consistently and kicking him off if he fails to abide by them.
  • Organizations, including in government and civil society, should invest in accountability by ensuring they have appropriately strong penalties for hate crimes and violent extremism and that they are rigorously enforced. Businesses, trade organizations, recreational clubs, and religious institutions could especially do more to establish and hold members to codes of conduct that prohibit hate speech and violence.
  • Former far-right extremists who have deradicalized should be a core part of the effort to reach members of violent extremist groups and create pathways for disengagement, accountability, and rehabilitation. Their work should be overseen by larger organizations with validated experience and achievements countering hate speech and political violence.
  • Local, civil society, state, and national organizations should launch initiatives aimed at generating replicable models for building shared understanding and prosperity that bridges partisan, community, racial, religious, and other persistent domestic divides. The Biden administration should build on these efforts by launching a national action initiative that provides guidance, funding, and sharing best practices for sub-national projects.
  • The White House and Congress, regardless of which party is in control, must model for the nation a new way of working through political differences that leaves behind the zero-sum approach of recent decades. This is probably the most ambitious of all the recommendations. But if political leaders fail to see the threat of extremist violence as an existential challenge with costs none of us can endure, then our long-term prospects as an example of democracy and justice will be bleak.
Image: Members of the Proud Boys kick a member of Antifa on the ground during a protest on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Kyle Murphy

Kyle Murphy served as a senior intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he authored assessments on political and security issues that covered every region in Africa and many of the non-state and outside actors on the continent. He previously served at the White House from 2015-2017 as the National Security Council (NSC) director for West Africa and as the acting senior director for Africa during the 2017 presidential transition. Follow him on on Twitter (@kyle_a_murphy).