Lowering the temperature of the political debates in the United States ought to be a priority for both political parties — and, indeed, for all Americans. But with less than two months until Election Day, violent incidents and rhetoric are both on the rise, raising the specter of more widespread unrest in the weeks to come.
Political leaders of all stripes need to defend the legitimacy of the election, to starve conspiracy theorists of oxygen and dispel any rumors of fraud that, in extreme cases, may fan political violence. Because President Trump has been primarily responsible for the toxic tenor of politics in 2020, it’s especially incumbent upon his fellow Republicans to do their part.
Trump has continued to undermine the legitimacy of the election — recently tweeting that the November results may “never be accurately determined” — potentially leading a large share of his supporters to falsely believe that a victory by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would be illegitimate. A member of Trump’s administration, who has since taken a “medical” leave, encouraged the president’s supporters to stock up on ammunition, implying that there may be an armed conflict between left- and right-wing groups.
Make no mistake: This kind of rhetoric from high-ranking government officials, including the president himself, sends a message to right-wing vigilantes that could have catastrophic consequences come November — that is, unless there’s a strong, unified response.
“Well-meaning politicians from both sides could do quite a lot to propel violence downward,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Rhetorically pushing back is a huge positive that leaders can do. . . . The psychological research is very strong in how much leaders set norms for their groups.”
For their part, many Democrats, including Biden, have denounced all forms of violence. And while some Republicans have as well, too many others are wary of standing up to the president. Hand-in-hand with Trump’s casting doubt on the election’s integrity has been fomenting fear of the Black Lives Matter movement and smearing largely peaceful protesters as violent outlaws bent on disrupting the vote. Both conspiracy theories work together to radicalize voters who fall for them.
Republicans like Senator Rand Paul, who was ambushed by protesters in Washington, D.C., after Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, have given the president’s rhetoric more potency. Paul falsely claimed that the protesters who confronted him were paid to be there — a common and dangerous talking point that delegitimizes the protests and promotes more vitriol toward them. People like Paul and his Republican colleagues should know better.
“If leaders do things like talk about certain people as animals or talk about the left or the right as enemies, that has a much greater effect than if regular people do that,” Kleinfeld said. That’s why it’s crucial that Republicans across the board, especially elected officials like governors and lawmakers, repudiate the president’s violent language.
“Unfortunately, what we have going into the election is Republican elected officials very fearful of taking on the president and disagreeing with the president and, in particular, disagreeing with his reelection strategy, which is to have violence and [Trump] be the law-and-order candidate,” Democratic Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico told the Globe editorial board.
There are other ways for lawmakers to prevent Trump from instigating unrest. While worries of violence breaking out between citizens is one main concern, aggressive policing of peaceful protests has been shown to escalate tensions that have sometimes turned more violent. “When Trump calls in the National Guard to mobilize against peaceful protesters, it seems to me he’s doing it for one reason: to cause mayhem because he thinks it will benefit his presidential campaign,” Udall said.
Earlier this summer, Udall introduced an amendment to close a loophole that allowed Trump to federalize the National Guard to mobilize against Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C. While the amendment would not curb the president’s authority to deploy the Army or National Guard to enforce federal law by invoking the Insurrection Act — as President Dwight Eisenhower did to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Ark. — it would make it more difficult, though not impossible, for Trump or Attorney General William Barr to mobilize federal troops against peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.
Sadly, the threat of political violence is not new, and if Americans aggrieved by election results lash out in November, it won’t be the first time. But leaders can help minimize the risks. In the coming weeks, Democrats and Republicans alike have a responsibility to denounce violence, defend the voting process, and respect the election’s results.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.