Growing threat of political violence looms over 2024, former members of Congress warn

Former President Donald Trump steps off his plane as he arrives at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (Alex Brandon, File/AP Photo)

Former members of Congress are deeply concerned about political violence ahead of the 2024 presidential election, former Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama and former Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia said at a Thursday joint appearance sponsored by the liberal Center for American Progress and the nonpartisan McCain Institute.

Jones, a moderate Democrat who lost reelection in 2020, and Comstock, a moderate Republican who was defeated in 2018, said increased acceptance of political violence is seen across the political spectrum. But they laid much of the blame on former President Donald Trump and his supporters.

An October poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington-based independent research organization, found that 23% of respondents believe that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

That represented an increase from 15% in 2021 and was the first poll in the eight times the group has asked that question in which support has risen above 20%.

One-third of Republicans and 46% of people who believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump agreed with the statement.

Comstock noted that antisemitism on some elite college campuses also represented a disturbing trend and Jones described a growing acceptance of violence “across the board.”

The country “seems to be splitting down the middle” politically, with each side believing the other is a threat to democracy, Jones said.

“They’re willing to accept some violence to protect” democracy, he said. “Trying to bridge that, between those two camps who would take up arms against each other for vastly different reasons but all in the name of saving democracy, really is, I think, a road to disaster, potentially.”

Trump central to growing rift

But they suggested the most direct and intentional threats appear to be coming from Trump and the movement he leads.

Jones, who was a U.S. attorney who prosecuted cases involving anti-Black violence before his election to the Senate, said there are politicians who continue to use “dog whistles,” or coded language their supporters understand as endorsements of violence.

Some leaders who use passionate rhetoric don’t necessarily mean to inspire violence, he said. But others do so intentionally, he added, making an indirect but unmistakable reference to Trump.

“Look, I believe there are some in this — who will go unnamed, but initials are D.T. — (who) have an intent,” Jones said. “I think they’ve had it before. They know exactly what they’re saying.

“How do we look at that?” he continued. “How do we talk when you’ve got political leaders that are out there who are literally calling for the execution of a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are calling their political opponents vermin that needs to be exterminated? That is a clear signal to folks.”

Trump used that language at a New Hampshire rally last month.

“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country,” he said.

Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud, which inspired the attempt to stop the peaceful transition of presidential power in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, were a major driver of political division, Comstock, who opposed Trump in 2016, said.

Close legislative elections in Virginia this year did not inspire the same backlash as Trump’s 2020 reelection loss, she said, crediting Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the chairs of each state party for publicly accepting the election results and “not feeding into that paranoia.”

“Surprise: When Donald Trump’s not on the ballot, the voting all goes really securely and safely,” she said.

Lawmakers face death threats

Jones and Comstock cited a recent survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts for the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress showing that 84% of former members surveyed are concerned about the possibility of violence related to the presidential election.

Nearly half of the almost 300 respondents in the poll said they or their families received threats at least somewhat frequently while they were in office. Women and lawmakers of color reported higher instances, with 69% saying they’d experienced threats at least somewhat frequently.

And the problem may be worse for local government officials who lack the security available to members of Congress, Jones and Comstock said.

Comstock praised Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, both Republicans, for “standing up” for frontline elections workers who received threats and abuse from Trump supporters after the 2020 election.

Maricopa County, Arizona, Supervisor Bill Gates did not receive the same support from Republicans in his state as he faced abuse in the wake of election losses by Trump and Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake, Comstock said.

“He’s just this local supervisor who doesn’t have the protections that we had in Congress and the Capitol Police,” she said. “So this was just a very abusive process.”

Gates and Raffensperger should be considered “heroes who are on the front lines” of defending democracy, Comstock said.

State and local elections officials have said they are having difficulty retaining and recruiting workers, as the people in those nonpolitical jobs have faced increased abuse from partisans.

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.