The Next Time Will Be Worse
If we don't disincentivize right-wing political violence, we will get more of it.
The image most people associate with the deadly Republican insurrection of January 6, 2021 is a probably a viking-hatted marauder, or a smug jackass with his feet on then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, or overmatched Capitol police fighting for their lives and our democracy against a bloodthirsty mob.
For me, it’s this:
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That’s a photo of Eric Parker aiming a rifle at law enforcement personnel during the 2014 Bundy Ranch insurrection against the federal government.1 Less than four years later, in early 2018, a Republican state representative introduced Parker on the floor of the Idaho state house, where he was applauded by members of the legislature. Later that year, Parker pled guilty to a misdemeanor for his actions in 2014. In 2020, Parker ran for a seat in Idaho’s state legislature, and has had a close political relationship with Idaho’s outgoing Lieutenant Governor.
That photo, of a right-winger literally aiming a gun at law enforcement personnel in an effort to aid other right-wingers in continuing to violate the law, is one of the defining images of modern America. Parker’s eventual guilty plea was, in his words, “the same as jaywalking” — and he has repeatedly said he would do it again. And he and his fellow insurrectionists have been embraced by some Republican leaders and politely ignored by others. The Republican Party, which portrays itself (and is portrayed by the news media) as tough on crime, has never offered much of an objection to the Bundy insurrection, because they all want the same thing: Power for themselves and people like them, democracy be damned.
That image of Eric Parker has stuck with me for the last eight years. It’s pretty rare for a week to go by without it coming to mind. It’s a symbol of the American right’s belief that the law does not apply to them, of their willingness to use violence and the threat of violence to accomplish political goals, of the relative impunity with which they act — and of the incentives this impunity creates.2 It was on my mind when I predicted in 2017 that Trump would lose re-election, declare himself the winner, and his supporters would take up arms on his behalf. I thought of it every time a Republican leader — not just Trump! — incited political violence. I thought about it when these repeated, overt incitements to violence routinely passed without significant condemnation from our elites and institutions.
And so that image of Eric Parker pointing a rifle at law enforcement came immediately to mind as the inevitable events of January 6, 2021 began unfolding. And it stayed in my mind all day, as I watched the assault continue, and in moments when I had to look away. We had been on this path for a long time — and many of our political leaders actively encouraged it, while others, along with elites in media, academia, and elsewhere tacitly accepted it through their silence. Of course Trump supporters turned to violence to keep him in power. What the fuck did we think was going to happen?
And it came to mind again this morning, when I saw that NBC decided to mark the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection by running an op-ed arguing against punishment for the insurrectionists.
What could possibly go wrong?
Cliven Bundy said at the time “"We definitely don't recognize [the Bureau of Land Management director's] jurisdiction or authority, his arresting power or policing power in any way” and “We're about ready to take the country over with force!" If you’re more accustomed to seeing these events described as a “protest” than an insurrection, that’s part of the problem.