Dr. Richard Burchill, an independent researcher based in Brussels
In the run-up to January 6 this year — one year since the US Capitol was attacked in protest of the US presidential election results, — there has reportedly been a proliferation of extremist rhetoric. While this is a substantial concern, it should come as no surprise. There has also been an increase in threats to politicians, even though a specific plot has yet to be uncovered. Violence against politicians — real or threatened — over political disputes and dissatisfaction is undoubtedly a major concern for democracies, but the existence of such threats is not particularly new.
The idea that somehow the 2020 elections in the US were “stolen” or fraudulent remains a common refrain in political discussions. Continuous messaging claiming that the 2020 elections were fraudulent — from former US President Donald Trump, his supporters, a large swathe of the Republican party across the country and several media outlets — has been a mainstay of the political debate. It is important to note that Trump was talking about election fraud even before the 2016 presidential election that he won. It is now a common refrain that many in the US have taken as truth.
The targeting of politicians is also not a surprise. Unfortunately, inciting violence against politicians has been an integral part of Trump’s rhetoric. Trump’s support for violence, and condoning its use, is well documented. He has invoked violence in order to both show strength, and in response to perceived attacks upon himself or his supporters.
Violence Becoming More Mainstream
Threatened and real violence against politicians is also present in Europe. French lawmakers have faced death threats and acts of violence as a result of recently passed public health measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. In the UK, a member of Parliament was killed in 2021, making him the second MP killed by a member of the public in the past five years.
While violence should have no part in the democratic process, it is becoming more and more prominent and part of mainstream discourse. In politics, the use of violent metaphors or combative language is increasingly being used. Why say something mundane like “we will make every effort to have a successful campaign” when you can say “we will defeat our opponents in this battle.” The latter word choices are more emotive and garner a more emotional and passionate following.
While in the past, such word choices could be written off as merely metaphoric, this is no longer the case. In the case of Trump, his supporters appear to have taken much of his inferences to violence as direct instruction. Having a political official — especially the president of the United States — openly supporting violence empowers people to take action. Politicians and media are increasingly embracing the use of violence and adopting positions of hatred in their public discourse, contributing to the normalization of extremism.
According to author J.M. Berger, the definition of extremism is highly relevant in this regard — the belief that “an in-group’s success or survival can never be separated from the need for hostile action against an out-group.” Hostile acts against outgroups due to different political views and cultural reference points are becoming more common.
Normalizing violence and hostility is a worrying trend in Western politics. The Council of Europe reported, in 2013, that hatred and hostility in speech can directly incite violence and politicians have a high degree of responsibility to avoid such speech. This is because “politicians are in a position of authority, therefore, hate speech has an impact on potential offenders who feel encouraged in their intolerance and bias.” This report predates the Trump era, demonstrating that concerns over violence and hatred have a longer history than the immediate political context.
The Council of Europe report also makes clear the path on how to respond to the mainstreaming of violence, asking: “So, where do responsibilities lie? The answer is short and simple: everywhere.” Foremost, responsibility for lies with political figures, and not only the likes of Trump. Across Europe political figures commonly express hatred for migrants, political opponents, and European institutions. Hostile actions have been being carried out indicating that the problem has gone beyond the mere expression of political differences.
This brings me to the issue of stochastic terrorism, which is being increasingly observed around the world. Stochastic terrorism is defined as “the use of mass media to provoke random acts of ideologically motivated violence that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”
Continued uncertainty in society is a destabilizing force which gives extremist narratives more traction. The uncertainty being experienced is contributing to distrust, lack of faith in formal politics and parallel facts or interpretations of social events. In such circumstances, when politicians and the media contribute to the normalization of hatred and hostile acts, the threat of violence multiplies.
Politicians have a specific responsibility in countering the normalization of violence and hatred. Widespread attempts to normalize the events of January 6 by many US politicians, including writing it off as “normal tourist visit”, is worrisome. The perpetuation of such falsehoods contributes to the idea that violence is an acceptable part of the political process. Europe is not seeing the likes of Trump and his supporters but there are politicians normalizing hate over issues of migration and public health measures, in particular. This produces a ripe environment for inciting violence.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.