Pro-Trump protesters in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
By Quentin Young
“I’ve said we need to build more gallows.”
Those words were spoken last month by a Republican state senator from Arizona, Wendy Rogers, at a white nationalist rally. The topic was the execution of political enemies.
“If we try some of these high-level criminals, convict them and use a newly built set of gallows, it’ll make an example of these traitors who have betrayed our country.”
There was a time in America when open talk of political violence was restricted to fringe forums among extremists who had little prospect of holding public office. But Rogers has a national presence, is praised by former President Donald Trump, and breaks fundraising records.
She is not an outlier. Today allusions to violence are a routine component of the conservative brand, and some far-right Republicans have adopted violent hatred of opponents as a central ideological tenet.
The longer such rhetoric is allowed to persist the more actual violence is likely to occur.
The rhetoric is not vague or indirect. It often specifies methods of killing people and singles out individuals who should be killed. And as it accumulates in far-right digital platforms and at extremist gatherings, it acquires legitimacy among an increasingly aggrieved portion of the conservative base and is normalized as an inevitable response to political discontent.
It won’t remain mere rhetoric forever. We’re heading toward a threshold of bloodshed.
“Conservative websites and political leaders, especially at the state and local level, now regularly use violent rhetoric and demonize their political opponents,” wrote Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at Brookings, last year in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, which was inspired by Trump and the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. “A range of research suggests the incendiary rhetoric of political leaders can make political violence more likely, gives violence direction, complicates the law enforcement response, and increases fear in vulnerable communities.”
Violent rhetoric has only increased since then.
The figures who are responsible for such terrorizing speech sometimes protest disingenuously that they’re not calling for violence — no, they’re merely seeking “due process” or “justice” for treason and other purported capital crimes. But nobody, least of all their supporters, buys this, and everyone understands that “due process” is code for execution.
A glaring tell is that these figures have a fixation on hangings.
We're heading toward a threshold of bloodshed.
In Michigan, the alleged ringleader of an extremist group that planned to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reportedly said he planned to “recruit 200 people to storm the Capitol, try any politicians they caught for ‘treason,’ and execute them by hanging on live television.”
“You know what they do to traitors?” a man said as he joined in harassing Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and his family at a restaurant last month. “They hang them.” Another man said to the governor, “We should string you up on a lamppost right now.”
Recall that a primary objective of the pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6 was to “hang” Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump later said it was “common sense” for his supporters to chant this intention.
Colorado is a hotbed of this strain of threats. Republican insurrectionist Shawn Smith of Colorado Springs, who is president of the Mike Lindell-funded Cause of America, recently appeared at a gathering in a church with other leading election deniers, including coup plotter John Eastman.
From the stage in front of an audience of dozens he said, referring to Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, “I think if you’re involved in election fraud, then you deserve to hang.” Such “justice” would result from “due process,” he was careful to assert. In subsequent days he not only doubled down on execution and “due process” talk but also applied it to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser.
Others on social media perpetuated execution talk after the event. “Also, for the record, after due process, I don’t think anyone is wedded to hanging,” wrote Ashe Epp, who works with Cause of America, on Telegram. “Firing squads or a good old fashioned stoning would work just as well.”
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On stage with Smith was Joe Oltmann, the influential conservative podcaster. In December he suggested that multiple elected officials with whom he disagreed, including Polis, should go to the gallows. On Feb. 13, the day of the Superbowl, he posted to his almost 65,000 Telegram subscribers an illustration of former First Lady Hillary Clinton being led to the gallows, with the heading, “The Halftime show America really wants.”
Many Republican officials try to distance themselves from the most outrageous violent rhetoric. But even the need for repeated disavowals highlights how normalized such rhetoric within the party has become.
The rally at which Rogers spoke was organized by the Holocaust-denying racist Nick Fuentes. During his own turn at the mic, Fuentes signaled his adoration for murderous autocrats: “Now, they’re going and saying, ‘Vladimir Putin is Adolf Hitler,’ as if that isn’t a good thing.”
Such dictators have a taste for offing enemies. A growing segment of the Republican Party endorses their methods.
Quentin Young is the editor of Colorado Newsline, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this column first appeared.
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