Note: This article originally appeared in The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name. This week’s edition is by Amanda.
The big news in Washington this week is former President Donald J. Trump’s impeachment trial.
Most of the facts aren’t in doubt. Mr. Trump’s statements to the crowd at the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 were public, so we know that he told the crowd that the election had been stolen, that then-Vice President Mike Pence had the ability to change the outcome, and that the crowd should go to the Capitol.
The video Mr. Trump released during the attack itself, in which he told the rioters, “Go home. We love you. You’re very special,” is likewise public record. And the rioters’ own footage of the attack on the Capitol, combined with analytical work by journalists and others, has made chillingly clear how violent the assault was and how close it came to being far worse.
The bulk of the impeachment managers’ arguments therefore focus on whether Mr. Trump’s statements constituted “incitement of insurrection,” the sole charge in the trial.
That is, of course, important for the impeachment trial. But it also connects to an even bigger question: When are politicians’ words likely to provoke others into violence? And, perhaps most crucially, who is responsible for preventing that from happening?
The first step in answering these questions is to look not at political rhetoric itself, but at the role of violent groups in politics. Study violence in divided societies, and you will quickly see a pattern emerge: Violent militias and paramilitary groups form from the ground up, capitalizing on anger and fear within a group. They are not part of mainstream politics — at least at first. But when politicians seek to tap into their power, public provocations and rallies provide a politically useful means to do so.
In Northern Ireland, for example, politicians wanting the territory to remain part of the United Kingdom were careful to distance themselves from paramilitary groups aligned with their cause.
“That was not what upstanding citizens do. It was the rabble of the lower classes,” said Jonathan S. Blake, a political scientist at the Berggruen Institute who wrote a book about the sectarian parades in Northern Ireland that often set off violence during the period known as the Troubles.
In the United States, white supremacist militias have followed a similar path. The modern militia movement has roots in disaffected white veterans of the Vietnam War, the University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew documented in her book “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.”
Inspired by extremist political tracts and books like the fictional Turner Diaries, modern paramilitary militias organized into armed cells, recruited new members and prepared for revolution. Sometimes they made headlines through violent tragedies like the confrontation at Ruby Ridge or deadly terrorist attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing.
These groups were able to draw on the long history of white-supremacist violence perpetrated by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and white militias that acted as an arm of law enforcement in the post-Reconstruction South.
“It was established for a lot of Southern governments after Reconstruction to use white militias to ensure that Black people knew who was in charge,” said Megan Ming Francis, a University of Washington political scientist who studies the role of white supremacist violence in American politics.
“We want to think of militias as a kind of aberration,” she said. “But they have existed. And we’re realizing now that not only have they persisted, they have thrived.”
For decades, they were fringe groups with little connection to mainstream politics. But then, in recent years, that began to change.
Conspiracy theories about government illegitimacy, such as the “birther” theory that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and wild myths that the Democratic Party was run by a cabal of pedophiles, took hold online. That created a political ecosystem that connected the worldview of far-right antigovernment militias to those of ordinary citizens who bought into myths like “birtherism.”
And a new group of Republican politicians, including Mr. Trump, found that tapping into that ecosystem could be a way to win office.
But politicians sought to capitalize on that anger and fear while maintaining respectable distance. Public provocations were the perfect opportunity: whip up violent elements, and signal alignment with their ideas while maintaining plausible deniability.
“Today, plenty of people within the Republican Party don’t support militias but do support other similar nonviolent actions,” Dr. Blake said. For example, politicians at rallies glorify the role of gun owners in American society, refer to opposition supporters or minority groups in dehumanizing language, or praise or validate the actions of violent groups.
Mr. Trump, for instance, refused to disavow the neo-fascist Proud Boys militia when asked to do so in a debate, instead telling them to “stand back and stand by” — a message that members of the group took as a signal of support.
“These kinds of provocations are universal in divided societies because they offer elites an opportunity to do things that are otherwise completely unacceptable,” Dr. Blake said. “You see something similar in India with Hindus marching through Muslim neighborhoods, and in Israel in parades of right-wing, often settler, often religious youth marching around Jerusalem often in Palestinian neighborhoods.”
Such provocations have often led to riots or other violence. But they offer something crucial: plausible deniability. People can claim they were just there to peacefully demonstrate for their heritage, and disclaim responsibility for the violence that followed.
“The masses look at this and say, ‘This is our tradition — we love it,’ and for a lot of people who would be uncomfortable supporting actual violent politics, they are very happy to spend a lot of time on this,” Dr. Blake said. Likewise, “they’re useful for the elites who want to drive a wedge while saying, ‘It’s just a parade. This is our tradition.’”
He sees clear parallels with the United States today, particularly the rallies around symbols like the Confederate battle flag and Confederate monuments.
“These things are useful ways to hide the politics — to make political claims, and contentious political claims, in more respectable ways than with the Klan,” he said.
This suggests a way that the connections between mainstream politics and political violence might start to break. If political norms change so that there is no longer plausible deniability for politicians who provoke violence without participating in it, or citizens who support provocations right up to the moment they turn violent, then armed groups will once again be relegated to the fringes. They may still be dangerous, but they will be far less powerful.
Yet it is not clear whether the divided Republican Party has the strength or will to support such norms. The impeachment trial may prove an important test of where it stands.