Those choices unfolded against a backdrop of recent polls that found a stunningly high percentage of rank-and-file Republican voters endorsed anti- small-d democratic sentiments, including the belief that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
Voters sympathetic to these conspiracy theories and the use or threat of violence as a political tool, says Daniel Cox, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who supervised the poll, have become “a really important faction that the Republican Party is going to have to address. There is a part of the GOP that is really buying into this stuff.”
Through their inactions on Trump and Greene, Republicans “are normalizing, they are mainstreaming, what counterterrorism experts would say is violent extremism: that it is acceptable to use inflammatory rhetoric and encourage violence to achieve your ends and … it is acceptable to engage in public life through conspiracy theories,” says Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary for threat prevention in the Department of Homeland Security for Trump who resigned and opposed his reelection.
That deference inside the GOP “is a sign, a recognition, that this ideology, this belief, this tribalism is the ascendant part of the Republican coalition,” says longtime Republican consultant Michael Madrid, who became a staunch Trump critic over the past four years. Elected Republicans bowing to Trump and Greene, he says, “are feeding the beast” of the growing party faction drawn to extremist beliefs and tactics.
“I don’t think most of them believe it; but they know that’s where the party is at,” Madrid adds. “They have fed the monster for so long that even when it turns on them, when the barbarians are literally at the gate … when they were the targets and they were prey, they still will not turn on it. That’s how dangerous is the societal threat that we are facing.”
Sympathizing with the rioters
The exact share of the GOP coalition responsive to extremist White nationalist beliefs or the use of violence to advance political goals is impossible to measure precisely. But polling and other research suggests that the best way to think about it may be through concentric circles radiating out from hard-core believers willing to commit violence themselves to a much broader range of GOP voters who might not become violent personally but express sympathy or understanding for those who do.
But polling has found a larger group of Republicans expressing sympathy for the attack on the Capitol — and a much larger group than that expressing sympathy more generally for the belief that the threats to American society as they define it have grown so great that force or violence is justified to respond to them.
The share of Republican voters who express support for the use of force to advance their political goals in general is considerably larger. In the American Enterprise Institute survey, 55% of Republicans agreed that “we may have to use force to save” the “American way of life.” Roughly 4-in-10 agreed with an even more harshly worded proposition: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.”
The share of Republicans who “strongly agree” with that sentiment — about 1 in 8 — is smaller and may be another measure of the share of the party coalition willing to personally consider violence. But even so, Republican opinion on these questions dramatically stands out from other Americans. Big majorities of Democrats and independents rejected both propositions.
“It’s pretty shocking,” says Cox, the director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life. “When you look at those kind of statements, and realize how extreme that they are, it is absolutely concerning that they find a significant amount of support [among Republicans].”
Bullying goes mainstream
The sheer number of Republican voters aligning with all of those beliefs creates a huge headwind for those in the party who want to take a stronger stand against extremism and violence by isolating Greene and castigating Trump for inciting the attack.
“It puts you in a difficult position to say in a full-throated way that this is wrong, and we reject it,” says Cox. “That’s what people are rightly worried about — that we need to come to a consensus that certain behaviors are well outside what is acceptable and need to be wholeheartedly rejected.” At this point, he adds, within the GOP, “we’re not seeing that.”
Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, agrees. All these findings about Republican voters’ tolerance for violence and conspiracy theories, he says, present “a chilling portrait of how far down the extremist tracks rank-and-file Republicans have gone with Trump.”
While “there were numerous opportunities over the last four years for historically mainstream Republicans to throw the switch and find an exit ramp,” he adds, the attitudes Trump has solidified in the GOP base now make that much harder. “Trump and Trumpism is now a runaway train that is not going to be easily derailed within the Republican Party,” he says.
“They just legitimized a person that used tactics I would say 10 years ago, even five years ago, would have been abhorrent to the Republican Party,” Neumann told me. “But President Trump has made bullying a key figure of the Republican Party now, so they know they can’t condemn that behavior because they know the base loves it.”
The new American Enterprise Institute study underlines his conclusion, according to previously unpublished data provided to CNN. In that survey, a striking three-fourths of Republicans agreed with the statement that discrimination against Whites is now as great a problem in the US as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities. Social scientists view agreement with that question as a measure of denial of the existence of systemic racism in American society.
The big majority of Republicans who consider discrimination against Whites as great a problem as discrimination against minorities were far more likely than those who disagree to endorse anti-democratic ideas. More than three-fifths of those worried about discrimination against Whites agreed that “we may have to use force” to save “the traditional American way of life.” Among the Republicans who believe minorities face more discrimination than Whites, nearly three-fourths disagreed with that statement. Nearly half of the Republicans who see widespread bias against Whites say Americans must consider violent action; almost four-fifths of the other Republicans reject that idea.
After the assault on the Capitol, they asked if protesters “went too far … causing lasting damage at home and abroad” or whether because “the election was stolen … it’s easy to understand why Trump supporters showed up to protest at the U.S. Capitol.” Trump supporters split in half on whether the protest was justified when the question noted the charges of fraud “in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia.” That result was stunning enough — but when the political scientists asked the same question while tying the fraud to “urban areas like Philadelphia and Atlanta, predominantly minority communities,” the share of Trump supporters who said they could “understand” the invasion shot up to nearly two-thirds.
In all their actions of the past few weeks — or more precisely the inaction against Trump and Greene — GOP leaders have signaled their unwillingness or inability to confront those sentiments too forcefully. Blum says that what appears to be happening inside the GOP is “an internal renegotiation that has dramatically changed which coalition members matter.” The pre-Trump traditional Republicans are losing influence, she says, while the party is responding to the hard-core Trump voters motivated by a “sense of [cultural] threat, White grievance.” It is, she adds, “like George Wallace rose from the grave” and imposed his priorities on the GOP.
These attitudes don’t suggest large numbers of Republican voters will pursue violent actions themselves; but, as the past few weeks show, they make it less likely that Republican leaders will clearly excommunicate such extremism.
“Without drawing that bright line, you are ceding your party to this: a party of not living in facts, that bullying is acceptable behavior and that violence is acceptable behavior if you are trying to preserve your ‘way of life,’ whatever that means,” says Neumann. “This will result in more people, especially within the echo chamber they are living in, seeing people that they disagree with as a mortal enemy, which for some small percentage of them translates into ‘I have a justification for violence.’ “
Madrid, one of the founders of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, agrees. The biggest challenge for the country, he argues, is not “the extremists” themselves but “the enablers” inside the GOP who are creating more oxygen for extremism to gain strength. The GOP’s situation, he says, resembles the dynamic in Northern Ireland with the Irish Republican Army during the years of their violent resistance to British rule.
“They would go out and blow things up,” Madrid says. “You could ask Irish Catholics who would say, ‘I’d never be part of the IRA, but I kind of get what they are doing … They are on the right side; they’ve got a point.’ And that’s where we are already at in the Republican Party, and that’s what that polling data suggests.”
This tacit acceptance of extremists and violence carries a clear political risk for the GOP: a continued loss of support among racially moderate voters in the white-collar suburbs who already moved steadily away from the party under Trump.
But if conspiracy theorists and other extremists solidify, or even expand, their beachhead in the GOP, the risk for the country could be much greater. The growing racial and religious diversity that triggers the retreat from democratic values among a growing number of GOP voters will only accelerate in the next decade. If the Republican Party does not find more will to explicitly renounce the dark forces circling around Trump, persistent outbursts of White nationalist political violence could be the deadly drumbeat for the years ahead.
“Clearly they think that’s where the base is and they can’t change it,” Neumann told me. “But I would argue we are at a moment where … if nobody steps up and tries to tell the truth and tries to lead people out of this echo chamber of stolen elections and [the belief that] violence is justified, that is catastrophic for the country. We will not survive as a democracy.”