When They Fantasize About Killing You, Believe Them

The hyperbolic posturing of Trumpist extremists, repeated often enough, will have deadly consequences.

Illustration of a target over a map of the United States
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Decades of living in, studying, and writing about the Middle East have taught me that whenever a political faction becomes obsessed with violent rhetoric and fantasies, brutal acts aren’t far behind. And while there’s always been a strain of militancy on the American right and left fringes, there is something unmistakably new, and profoundly alarming, about the casual, florid, and sadistic rhetoric that is metastasizing from the Republican fringe into the party’s mainstream.

For sheer pornographic sadism, it’s tough to beat Jesse Kelly’s encomium to murder and torture published by the right-wing website The Federalist. Kelly doesn’t make any real arguments, other than declaring liberals terrible authoritarians. Instead, in language that the Islamic State would envy, he describes the visceral, almost orgasmic, joy of scalping a dying enemy:

Close your eyes and imagine holding someone’s scalp in your hands. I don’t mean cradling his skull as you thousand-yard-stare at his lifeless face. I mean a real scalp, Indian-style, of some enemy you just killed on the battlefield; somebody you hated and who hated you back.

You killed him, won the day, carved off the top of his skull, and now you’re standing over him victorious on the now-quiet field of battle, with a quiet breeze blowing through your hair. Your adrenaline is still pumping with that primal feeling of victory and the elation of having survived when others didn’t.

Kelly hastens to add that he is discussing “not a real scalping, but a metaphorical one.” But he concludes the essay by warning readers that when they are stuck in a “liberal utopian nightmare,” they will want to know that before the leftists prevailed, they “rode out onto the plains and made them feel pain.”

Again, the unmistakable lesson from the modern Middle East is: When people keep saying they’re fantasizing about how great it would be, and feel, to kill you, believe them.

Most Republican leaders still don’t personally indulge in bloodthirsty reveries. But, with equal consistency, most are going out of their way to tolerate them. There’s no question that the right’s Overton window, which establishes what ideas a constituency will regard as legitimate, regarding political violence dramatically expanded during Donald Trump’s presidency and, especially, after his defeat by Joe Biden.

There was already a racial and cultural panic on the far right in the run-up to Trump’s election. In a notorious essay for the Claremont Review of Books in September 2016, “The Flight 93 Election,” the Claremont Institute’s Michael Anton described the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency as so dire that Americans needed to back a candidate as manifestly unfit and unstable as Trump. “Charge the cockpit or you die,” he wrote, because “if you don’t try, death is certain.”

Anton never said why and how the election of Hillary Clinton would mean national suicide. But he inveighed against “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners,” and in the eighth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the racial subtext was clear.

Trump’s indulgence in violent rhetoric, threats, and fantasies has been amply documented. He urged his supporters to assault protesters, police to brutalize prisoners and shoot demonstrators, and soldiers on the border to shoot migrants. He frequently voiced his admiration for, and even envy of, the brutality of foreign despots. Trump used the bully pulpit to preach the gospel of bloodshed like no other American president in history.

During his four years in office, and especially since the defeat he preposterously describes as “the greatest crime in history,” Trump’s own sanguineous impulses and visions have been migrating into Congress and the Republican mainstream, and spurring his followers to try to outbid one another in their vicious and gruesome pronouncements.

Trump once darkly hinted about “Second Amendment people” taking some unspecified actions, implicitly murderous, to protect gun rights if he lost to Clinton. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia now warns that if the government sends health-care workers door-to-door to encourage more Americans to get vaccinated, they will find that southerners “love our Second Amendment rights, and we’re not real big on strangers showing up on our front door … they might not like the welcome they get.”

Before she was elected, Greene once liked a Facebook comment that said to remove Nancy Pelosi from office, “a bullet to the head would be quicker.” On tour with Greene, her Republican ally Representative Matt Gaetz declared, “We have the Second Amendment in this country and I think we have an obligation to use it,” helpfully adding that the amendment’s purpose is “maintaining within the citizenry the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government.”

The former Trump-campaign chair and White House strategist Steve Bannon suggested that Anthony Fauci should be beheaded. And the Trump-friendly lawyer Joseph diGenova urged that a senior federal cybersecurity official be “taken out at dawn and shot.”

These politicians and pundits are playing the familiar political game of outbidding, always taking rhetoric to the next level in order to gain attention and become the champion of a passionate group. Another lesson from the Middle East is that words always matter.

What begins as hyperbolic posturing, when it is persistent and repeated, will eventually be taken seriously. And then not only will its proponents be stuck in a never-ending cycle of radical outbidding, but eventually some of their audience members—most of whom don’t know they’re not supposed to take any of this seriously, let alone literally—will act on it.

What are spirited patriots to do if they genuinely believe this rhetoric about the “end of America” brought about by the oppressive domination of a cabal of evil leftist authoritarians? Violent resistance is a plausibly rational response to such an existential threat. The reality that this supposed threat is merely the possibility that other Americans with different opinions might win some election is elided by the rhetoric of panic.

The past few years have seen numerous mass shootings and terrorist acts committed by radical adherents of this paranoid worldview, but none provided as terrifying a preview of where this all might be going as January 6 did. Trump knew exactly what he was suggesting when he told the crowd that day to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to stop the certification of Biden’s victory. His lawyer Rudy Giuliani specifically called for “trial by combat,” which is precisely what followed.

Mainstream Republican leaders initially condemned the violence, but in the subsequent seven months, most have decided it either wasn’t that bad after all or the country simply needs to move on. The congressional GOP was relatively united in trying to block any serious investigation. Meanwhile, Trump and his most ardent supporters are now openly celebrating the rioters as heroes, lauding Ashli Babbitt as a martyr and mocking police officers’ testimony about the trauma of being attacked and nearly killed by their fellow citizens, some of whom bore patriotic paraphernalia, including pro-police and U.S. flags.

Those few Republicans who are actively working to prevent any repetition of the events of January 6, including Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, find themselves marginalized, reviled, and, in Cheney’s case, ousted from party leadership.

So it’s no surprise that one recent survey found that 39 percent of Republicans agreed that if political leaders will not protect America, ordinary people should employ political violence; and that in another, 47 percent said that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” These numbers are unprecedented and alarming.

While there are certainly some violent leftists, nothing remotely comparable to this level of violent rhetoric exists among major Democratic figures; nor does the party base embrace violence to anything close to this degree. Democrats are stubbornly clinging to their center while Republicans drift ever closer to right-wing extremism.

There isn’t much anyone outside the GOP can do to stop that drift. Immediately after the January 6 riot, senior Republican figures, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, condemned Trump and his allies precisely because of the riot and the introduction of violent rhetoric and action into the American system. But since that brief spasm of criticism, almost all of them have fallen back in line.

The “woke” progressive left has a problem with intolerance and rigid ideological orthodoxies, and so does the right, especially at the state level. But the political right, including significant parts of the Republican Party, has developed an affinity for political violence in both word and deed.

Since 2015, Republican leaders like McConnell have plainly been hoping that Trump’s movement and its violent rhetoric would somehow just go away. They ignored, and thereby effectively condoned, it. But it didn’t go away. Instead, it ripened into actual violence on January 6 and seems ready to burst out again in a far more savage manner during some future confrontation.

The cancer of political violence is not an endemic American disease. At the moment, it is a Republican disease. No one but Republicans themselves can cure it. Until they do, the violence of the right is only going to keep swelling and crashing. From a Middle Eastern perspective, this is all appallingly familiar.