How to Tell If the Election Will Get Violent

Some experts are predicting violence after November 3. But there are ways to prevent it.

protesters in the streets
David Fenton / Getty

It was a tense and angry October. The United States had never felt more divided. Young people were marching in the streets and being met with heavily armed troops. People were seeking meaning in their lives, and finding it in ideology.

It wasn’t 2020. It was 1967.

Within a couple years, a group called the Weather Underground had decided to try to overthrow the U.S. government. According to Bryan Burrough, the author of Days of Rage, the group believed the racism and imperialism of the U.S. were so awful, and the public so complicit, that only explosions could convince people of their point of view. Some of its members desperately wanted purpose in their lives; others were riven by “grief and shame” over America’s misdeeds. The more the FBI and the police cracked down on them, it seemed, the more fervently the Weathermen dreamed of fighting back with force. Though they caused no deaths outside their own group, overall, the Weathermen took credit for 25 bombings, including attacks on the Capitol and the Pentagon.

Kit Bakke was motivated to join the Weathermen by her moral outrage over the war in Vietnam. In 1967, she and thousands of others marched on the Pentagon to voice their concern, but they were met with soldiers bearing bayonets. That was the turning point. “Okay, this is not my country anymore,” she remembers thinking. “If you’re not going to listen to us, we’re going to figure out another way to talk to you.”

Some experts are worried that the period following this election may become as chaotic and violent as the early 1970s. Extremists recently plotted to kidnap the governor of Michigan. Militias have recruited police and soldiers into their ranks. The president has encouraged his supporters to monitor polling places, has told the extremist Proud Boys to “stand by,” and has agreed to a peaceful transfer of power only with heavy caveats. “All the signs are pointing to a high risk of violence right now,” Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who runs the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, told me recently.

As in the late ’60s and early ’70s, America today crackles with rage and tension, the kind that political scientists worry about. “We are more polarized than at any time since the lead-up to the Civil War,” says Thomas Zeitzoff, a politics professor at American University. “We have two different, large protests: the protests against police racism and … far-right militia groups. And you have a president who is prepping and priming his supporters to delegitimize his results.”

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Just a few months ago, armed demonstrators gathered at the Michigan State Capitol to protest stay-at-home orders intended to reduce deaths from COVID-19. “If you saw that in another country, a bunch of people showing up in a state House with semiautomatic weapons? Those things definitely can spiral,” Zeitzoff says.

Disputed elections in which the process seems murky are more likely to lead to protests and violence. As are moments when people tie up their entire identities with their political party: The consequences of losing an election become unbearable, and some people may feel they need to rescue their nation through heroic action. In this kind of environment, “people are more inclined to do everything they can in order to ensure that they’re winning elections, even if that means using violence, even if that means engaging in acts of extremism,” says Arie Perliger, a security-studies professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

The most likely sources of violence today are far-right, rather than far-left, groups. “Objectively, there’s been more violence and more lethal violence committed by the far right,” Zeitzoff says. The experts I spoke with believe that any violence after this election is likely to be spontaneous and localized, with, say, right-wing militias and left-wing activists clashing in a few cities.

The worst-case scenario is this: Friendly sheriffs allow armed groups to intimidate voters at the polls on Election Day. Trump narrowly leads on Election Night, then mail-in ballots start to be counted and shift the race against him. Trump somehow signals to his base to take matters into their own hands, and they do. People might lash out against minorities, rival protest groups, or the symbols of both, such as synagogues.

Or armed people might attempt to take over election administration centers or recount centers to try to move the needle in their favor. In 2000, Republican operatives descended on an office at the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections, where canvassers were recounting ballots, in what became known as the “Brooks Brothers riot.” No one died, but people were punched and kicked.

Still, there are a number of reasons to think this election won’t get violent. In most countries, violence tends to take place before elections, not after. So if we’re not seeing widespread violence now, we might be in the clear.

Another thing protecting America is its wealth. Rich countries tend not to devolve into civil war because the costs of rioting for everyday people are too high. People might get angry for a weekend, but on Monday, they’ll feel obligated to show up for their well-paying accounting jobs.

What’s more, the number of people who are actually in a militia or another extremist group is still quite small. Some of those who are members, such as the Oath Keepers, like to pride themselves on not shooting first. The federal government is much more aware of homegrown terrorism than it was even a few years ago, and has devoted more funding to combatting it.

Mass violence, meanwhile, is usually organized by a large group, says Sarah Birch, a political-science professor at King’s College London. “No individual by themselves can lead to any type of mass phenomenon,” she says. “One individual is a little sack of blood and bones.”

If today’s would-be terrorists need another reason to remain nonviolent, they could look to past American terrorists, some of whom now say they don’t think their tactics worked. To Bakke, bombings no longer seem like an effective strategy. Looking back, “I don’t think we convinced any thinking person, ‘These kids are right,’” she told me.

Violence isn’t preordained. Over and over, experts told me that the best thing leaders can do to prevent violence is to accept the results of an election unequivocally.

If the ballots are still being counted days after November 3, people who have any credibility with the right could try to remind people that, ultimately, we’re all in this together. In the event that the election gets messy, a Fox News personality could urge people to stay calm and stay home.

In its work to defuse violent extremism, the organization Moonshot CVE focuses on citizenship-related messages. “‘We are all citizens of the same country, even if we have these fundamentally different views.’ Rhetorically, it lands really well with both the left and the right,” Micah Clark, a Moonshot program director, told me. “It’s one of the few things that does anymore.”