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Almost one-third of Republicans say they think violence may be necessary to solve the problems facing the United States, according to a new national survey by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. The finding is part of PRRI’s 12th annual American Values Survey released Monday which, among other things, highlights the continued impact of the same falsehoods and conspiracy theories that fueled the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol nearly one year later.
The survey was conducted between Sept. 16 and Sept. 29 through online interviews with a random sample of 2,508 adults living in all 50 states. Nearly one in five, or 18 percent, of overall respondents said they agreed with the statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” including 30 percent of Republicans, 11 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of independents.
“It is an alarming finding,” said Robert Jones, CEO and founder of PRRI. “I’ve been doing this a while, for decades, and it’s not the kind of finding that as a sociologist, a public opinion pollster, that you’re used to seeing.”
Overall, the responses to this question illustrate the “significant and rapidly increasing polarization in the United States,” he said.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that it’s “extremely disturbing” that “nearly a third of the Republicans measured in this poll are getting comfortable with the idea of political violence.” And, he said, the much smaller percentages of Democrats and independents who expressed support for this idea are also “enough to be concerning.”
Jones said the substantial showing of support for political violence among Republicans is “a direct result of former President Trump calling into question the election,” pointing to another stark finding from the PRRI poll: More than two-thirds of Republicans, or 68 percent, continue to believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, compared to 26 percent of independents and just 6 percent of Democrats.
According to the survey, Americans who believe Trump won the 2020 election are roughly four times as likely than those who don’t to agree that violence may be necessary “to save our country,” by a measure of 39 percent to 10 percent. Since he lost the election a year ago, Trump has spread false conspiracy theories claiming that the election was rigged and that President Biden’s win was illegitimate.
The findings also seem to demonstrate a clear correlation between people’s views and their preferred news sources. Among Republicans who trust Fox News above other outlets, 82 percent said they believe the election was stolen from Trump. Ninety-seven percent of those who rely mostly on far-right news sources like Newsmax and One America News (OAN) said the same, compared to less than half, 44 percent, of Republicans who trust mainstream news outlets.
“A large chunk of the Republican Party has been essentially radicalized,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. Beirich said she thinks “a lot of responsibility lies with Republican leadership” for failing to push back on the former president’s election fraud claims and efforts to downplay the violence of Jan. 6.
She noted that the few Republicans who have spoken out against these harmful narratives, like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who serves as vice chair of the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6, have faced political backlash.
“It’s very sad, actually, and very dangerous,” said Beirich. She suggested that conservative media figures might be more effective at dispelling conspiracy theories and denouncing violence; she said religious leaders could also serve that role, noting the large presence of evangelical Christians within the GOP. According to the PRRI study, a majority of white evangelicals, 60 percent, said they believe the election was stolen from Trump. White evangelicals were also the religious group most likely to think that “true American patriots might have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” with 26 percent saying they agree.
Pitcavage, a historian and authority on extremism in the United States, explained that political violence in America has traditionally come from the fringes of society. But, he said, the more society becomes polarized “the more there is a chance that political violence will not only come from extremists, but will come from really angry, agitated people in the mainstream as well.”
Pitcavage pointed to the more than 650 people who’ve been arrested so far in relation to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol as an example of this.
“About a quarter of them have previous ties to known extremist groups or movements, from the militia movement to White supremacists, to conspiracy theorists,” said Pitcavage. “The bulk of them did not.”
“The nightmare scenario is that this polarization will continue and there will be more and more instances where there could be mob violence or other types of violence ranging from volatile lone wolves acting out to people actually organizing and committing terrorist acts,” Pitcavage said.
In response to a request for comment on the findings of the latest PRRI survey, a spokesperson for the FBI referred Yahoo News to previous congressional testimony by FBI officials addressing domestic extremism.
In testimony given last month before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that since spring of 2020, the FBI has more than doubled its number of domestic terrorism investigations, to about 2,700 open cases.
“To meet that evolving threat, the FBI has surged resources to our domestic terrorism investigations in the last year, increasing personnel by 260 personnel,” Wray told senators at the time.
A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security similarly pointed to previous comments made by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about domestic terrorism. The spokesperson further cited a number of actions DHS has taken during the Biden presidency to address this threat, including the February designation of domestic violent extremism as a “National Priority Area” for the first time in FEMA grant programs; the creation in May of a new Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership to improve the agency’s capacity to prevent terrorist violence; and the issuing of National Terrorism Advisory System bulletins in January, May and August of this year that highlighted the threat of domestic violent extremists.
Jones noted that, in addition to the most recent September survey, PRRI asked the same question about political violence on three earlier polls conducted this year in March, June, and August. He and his colleagues expected to see greater support for political violence “in the heat of the moment, right after Jan. 6,” but they predicted that people would back away from those views over the course of the year.
Instead, the responses have remained fairly consistent since March, when 15 percent of respondents agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence,” including 28 percent of Republicans, 13 percent of Independents and 7 percent of Democrats.
“As we've gotten some distance [from Jan. 6], one might hope cooler heads would prevail, but we really haven’t seen that,” said Jones. “If anything, it looks like people are doubling down and views are getting kind of locked in.”
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