“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.
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. [Continue reading…]