Commentary

Threats of violence in our politics are at the point of emergency | Quentin Young

A unified message from Republican elected leaders could prevent a tragedy. So far they have failed to speak up

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By Quentin Young

Last week, a conservative Colorado podcaster said the state’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, should be hanged. He was not discreet about the matter. He felt no need to employ suggestive language. He named Polis, called him a traitor, and said he should go to the gallows.

Joe Oltmann, the perpetrator of this outrage, in many respects is a caricature of the unhinged right. For him there is no conspiracy too bonkers to believe, no lie too bald-faced to tell, no threat too cowardly to make.

And yet, he is no fringe figure. He is well-connected to the Colorado GOP. The state party’s current chairperson last year served as president of an activist group Oltmann founded, FEC United. George Brauchler, former district attorney in Arapahoe County and former Republican candidate for attorney general, calls Oltmann a friend. Oltmann was in the Willard Hotel “war room” with Trump allies on Jan. 6. For a civilian, Oltmann wields substantial influence among Colorado Republicans.

But what’s more alarming is that while the violent fantasies he voiced were unusually explicit, he is not alone in suggesting violence as a legitimate response to political conflict. In fact, an escalation of allusions to violence among Colorado conservative figures has reached the point of emergency.

If the pattern continues, violence is inevitable. The system is blinking red.

John Tiegen, a former Marine from Colorado Springs who founded the United American Defense Force, a militia wing of FEC United, recently said during a discussion about political discord in the country, “I see a war coming.”

A recent poll found that 30% of Republicans agree that 'true American patriots might have to resort to violence in order to save our country.'

Shawn Smith, an election denier from Colorado Springs who works with a conspiracy group endorsed by leading GOP governor candidate Heidi Ganahl, recently made this chilling pronouncement during a video call with colleagues: “I have no desire whatsoever for violence, but I promise you that people in the country are not going to go down … There’s not going to be a tyrannical regime that stays in power. Only they’ll recognize their limits under the law and this will be walked back or it’s going to get very dangerous. And it’s going to be dangerous all around. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if they think this is going to end somehow in surrender from the people, they’re all wrong about that.”

Violent threats against Jena Griswold, Colorado’s Democratic secretary of state, have become so frequent and disturbing that her office is seeking funds specifically to “address election-related security concerns.” Griswold repeatedly receives threats such as, “The punishment for treason is death,” reports The Colorado Sun.

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U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., a gun zealot who makes a performance of toting firearms everywhere she goes, has caused fellow lawmakers to fear for their physical safety from the moment she arrived in Washington, D.C.

“House members — in both parties — are saying they’re scared of this member. Not politically, literally scared for their safety,” Benjy Sarlin of NBC News tweeted about Boebert in January. Boebert caused an uproar last month when she suggested a colleague, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim, could be a suicide bomber and referred to her as the “jihad squad.” Besides being clownishly bigoted, the remarks jeopardize the physical well-being of Omar and her team. The Minnesota Democrat has received death threats, “too many to count,” due to remarks like Boebert’s.

“Words matter, and words can cause violence,” Omar said on CNN. “And she knows that the language that she’s using, the audience that she’s using it for, is going to incite violence against myself and my community.”

As if in an act of self-parody, Boebert  tweeted a photo of herself posing with her four young boys, who are wielding assault weapons in front of a Christmas tree. What kind of person, what kind of mother, celebrates their own children brandishing weapons of war?

What’s terrifying is that this all aligns with a general escalation of violent rhetoric on the American right, such as when former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon advocated beheadings for Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray, and when OAN’s Pearson Sharp called for the execution of “tens of thousands” of Americans whom he claimed stole the election from Trump; and when U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-S.C., called on conservatives to “fight” as if they were in the Revolutionary War; and when U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., tweeted an animated video that depicted him killing U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and when Trump supporters express impatience about when they “get to use the guns,” and when local elected officials talk openly about the necessity of bloodshed to protect freedom, as Scott Thompson, the vice mayor of Oroville, Calif., did.

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A recent poll found that 30% of Republicans agree that “true American patriots might have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Experts say violent rhetoric can lead to violent action. But we don’t need experts to remind us of that — the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection illustrated the danger all too well.

More such attacks against people and institutions are virtually guaranteed if violent rhetoric continues to be condoned. Most of the people whose voice matters in this respect have utterly failed to meaningfully speak out against threats of violence. They include Colorado GOP officials, Republican Reps. Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn, and other Colorado elected Republicans in state and local office.

Their influence could make a difference. A strong, unified message from them could prevent a tragedy. Denouncing political violence should never come with a political cost. And if it does, bloodshed is closer at hand than Coloradans realize.

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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