Kansas City Political Scientists Worry The Discord Sown During The Trump Years Will Lead To Violence
Some political scientists worry that President Trump’s attacks on the press, political adversaries and the election process could become the new normal—with potentially violent results.
Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump challenged America’s democratic institutions in unprecedented ways.
Trump will leave the White House in January. But even as the democratic process continues to unfold at a slower pace than usual, his refusal to accept the results of the election is worrisome, says UMKC political science professor Dr. Elizabeth Vonnahme, who argues that this rhetoric is mostly isolated to Trump and his administration.
“His attacks on the election process are important, but until we see this sort of filtering down to the rest of the Republican party, I’m not sure we can really say democracy is at risk at this point," Vonnahme says.
According to recent polls, however, it appears this filtering down may have occurred. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll found that about half of Republicans believe Trump rightfully won the election, but it was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud. Only 29% of Republicans said Biden rightfully won the election.
And, Republicans in Congress are using the same rhetoric. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has been slow to recognize Joe Biden as the next president, saying in an interview following the election that he won’t until “all illegal votes” have been discarded.
“If that process is not allowed to go forward, if the president is not given his day in court, I think you’re going to have half the country, including many voters in the state of Missouri, say this election’s been stolen from them,” Hawley said.
KU political science professor Patrick Miller says distrust of elections has been a growing phenomenon since the 2000 election, but Trump’s rhetoric has made it worse.
“It’s become an increasing narrative in American politics that when the other side wins the election it’s because of fraud and cheating, and that the only legitimate and fair election is an election my team wins,” Miller says.
Hollie Niblett, a Democratic voter in Overland Park, says Republicans have lost any legitimacy as a party due to their attacks on the election.
“I think they’re no longer interested in democracy,” Niblett says. “I see them maneuvering, being dishonest and lying to their constituents to hang onto power."
Attacks on the media
Vonnahme says she’s more concerned about the impacts of another defining trait of the Trump presidency: attacks on the press, calling outlets he dislikes everything from his trademark phrase “fake news” to “the enemy of the people.”
She explains, “If the press doesn’t have access to the government and the opposition, in this case the Republican party, that is a problem for democracy, because democracy rests on the fact that both the government and the opposition interact with the press.”
Trump’s attacks on the media have already been mirrored by some Missouri Republicans. Just days after being elected to his first full term as governor, Mike Parson refused to answer questions at a press briefing from the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government. And, Hawley has also joined the press bashing.
The result of this rhetoric? A Republican party that increasingly distrusts the media at large. A study by the Pew Research Center on the 2020 election found that 67% of Republicans view CNN as untrustworthy. And at least half of the party now feels the same way about MSNBC, The New York Times and NBC News.
But, three-fourths of Republicans said they trust Fox News, an outlet 77% of Democrats find untrustworthy.
“If people are getting their news from vastly different sources, and those sources are converting information about government in vastly different ways, we could have a situation where we never see compromise in Congress,” Vonnahme says.
Jay Elder, a Trump supporter, doesn’t see danger in Trump attacking the media—in fact, he sees it as healthy.
“Americans, in general, are lazy but if we weren’t, Trump’s conflicts with the media would push people to think ‘Well, why is he saying that?’ and then look at different outlets and figure out their own thoughts based on different perspectives,” Elder says.
Deepening polarization and political violence
Miller and Vonnahme agree that one of the greatest impacts of Trump's presidency has been an increase in affective polarization, or an intense dislike for members of the opposing party.
“That notion that it’s an 'us versus them' world, and for us to get ahead, to prosper, the ‘them’ needs to not—that kind of polarization has increased dramatically,” says Vonnahme.
Pew found that the share of Republicans who give Democrats a “cold” rating on a 0-100 thermometer has risen 14 points since 2016, with almost all of the increase coming from “very cold” ratings (0-24). Democrats feel the same way, with 57% giving Republicans a “very cold” rating, up from 41% before Trump took office.
Neil Newhouse, the top pollster for the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, has made similar findings.
In polling conducted earlier this year, Newhouse found that 80% of Democrats think Republicans are racists, while 80% of Republicans think Democrats are socialists.
Newhouse, a Kansas City native twice named ‘Pollster of the Year’ by The American Association of Political Consultants, spoke with people following the election who kept their vote a secret.
“One woman said, ‘I have a lot of liberal friends that have anger issues when it comes to politics. They’d say ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re voting for him. What’s wrong with you? He committed fraud, he’s racist, he’s homophobic.’”
Elder, who frequently makes political posts to social media, says he’s had many friends cut him off because of his opinions.
“I can think of at least 10 people who have blocked me because I support law enforcement,” Elder says. “It sucks because some of these people I’ve grown up with since I was 3 years old."
Miller says such divisions can be tied back to the way Trump attacks his enemies.
“Trump fights with people in public, he calls people names, and I think what that does for both parties is it validates that hateful mentality,” Miller says.
Concerns are increasing that these deepening divides will give rise to political violence. A 2020 Politico poll found that a third of both Republicans and Democrats now say violence could be justified in advancing their party’s political goals, a significant increase over the past three years.
These calls for violence have even been made by some local leaders. In a Facebook post this September, Johnson County Commissioner Mike Brown called for county residents to arm themselves in preparation for conflict with the left, citing the widespread protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in May as a sign of a “coming war.”
“I’ve got my own war drum,” Brown wrote. “And I’m waiting for the other side to give me reason to pound on it. And I will. Say when.”
And, similar animosity is also coming from the left.
“I have a liberal student of mine who went out and bought an AR-15 knockoff before this election because that student was convinced this election was going to devolve into political violence.”
Miller and other political scientists believe the country is close to a tipping point.
“The more people you have in political leadership saying these things, the bigger risk you run of lighting the powder keg,” Miller says. “The powder keg is getting bigger, and I just don’t know when the match is going to happen to set it off. But I’m afraid that it will.”