The disturbing reality of political violence in America is too often ignored

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar shared an altered video Monday of himself killing New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and threatening to kill the president. It was a joke, Gosar’s press office said, so everyone just relax. Some jokes aren’t meant to be funny.

The incident sparked condemnation and calls for banning Gosar from social media. This isn’t the first time. Gosar has been one of the former president’s most vocal seditionaries. He is connected to organizing the January 6 sacking and looting of the United States Capitol. Earlier this year, he joined an event organized by an avowed white supremacist.

It’s a mistake, however, to single him out as an outlier. The GOP and its right-wing media apparatus have been conspicuous for their silence. Quiet is complicity. As The Atlantic‘s Ronald Brownstein wrote Monday in response to the news: “The normalizing, even celebrating, of political violence in parts of the GOP coalition continues, with virtual silence from almost all party leaders and conservative commentators.”

But it would be another mistake to say the GOP is in the process of normalizing political violence. Political violence is much more normal than we tend to give it credit for. Indeed, we tend to deny it, because denying it is much less terrifying than admitting that it’s prevalent. Celebrating violence comes after it’s been normalized. We should see Gosar’s video of himself killing and threatening his enemies as the logical next step in a process that’s been unfolding in front of us.

Consider a 2019 study finding white parents who felt “left behind” by the economy “discipline” their kids more harshly than their Black counterparts. By “discipline,” I mean spank. I mean hit. I mean assault. One of the co-authors said: “Compared with the highest earners, whites who perceived themselves to be members of the lower or working class were 25 percent more likely to agree that ‘a good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary’ than similarly set Black parents.”

“A good, hard spanking” is never necessary, but it can be rationalized. “Left behind” by the economy is one way of doing that. But the causal link between violence and economics doesn’t square with this fact: Black people get the short end of the stick far more often than white people do. Yet the study found Black parents don’t hit their kids as much. So the link isn’t between violence and economics. It’s between violence and race. Given race is always already political, the study suggests the prevalence of political violence among white people.

Among white men. After all, kids are the victims. So are women. The above study was done in 2019. The year before, Sean Parnell “started hitting the kids,” according to his estranged wife. Parnell is running to replace Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Laurie Snell testified in family court last month, saying “he choked her until she bit him to escape, that he hit their young children, and that he lashed out at her with obscenities and insults,” according to the Philly Inquirer.

That Parnell started hitting his wife and kids after getting involved in Republican politics, and after Donald Trump rose to power, shouldn’t be surprising. The Republicans are the party of “the natural order of things,” just as Donald Trump is the protector of “the natural order of things” — which puts white men on top. Democracy has, notably since 2008, challenged the order such that its beneficiaries (i.e., white men) have taken to venting their rage on their own families. They might feel “left behind,” but jobs and economics aren’t why. The reason is politics.

Private political violence. That’s what we should call it. We don’t, though. We call it “domestic violence” or worse, “spanking,” as if it’s fun. But whether it’s men assaulting women or men assaulting children — or, more specifically, white men assaulting women and white men assaulting children — the chain of causality starts in the same place. Someone somewhere is challenging the private and public authority of white men. It might be women. It might be children. It might be democracy itself. In any case, it’s political. In any case, it’s violent. Someone somewhere must be and will be punished. Only when the scales of “justice” have been “righted” will white men feel better.

Again, we don’t call it “private political violence.” Nor do we call shooting massacres “public political violence.” The same arrogant and resentful energies characterize both, though. Democracy isn’t going to stop. Neither will attempts to protect the “natural order of things.” Political violence, private or public, is already with us and always will be. The question isn’t whether it’s normal. The question is how much do we celebrate it. Gosar is suggesting how much.

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